Phoenix II: Jeff Gordon - Friday media visit

JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 DUPONT IMPALA SS met with media and discussed practice and racing at Phoenix, minor changes at HMS, crew chief Steve Letarte, Jimmie Johnson going for his third consecutive championship, Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a teammate a year...

JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 DUPONT IMPALA SS met with media and discussed practice and racing at Phoenix, minor changes at HMS, crew chief Steve Letarte, Jimmie Johnson going for his third consecutive championship, Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a teammate a year later, and more.

HOW WAS PRACTICE AND HOW IS YOUR CAR? "The car is good. We had a good practice. The last run that we made, I got into Turn 1 a little too deep and so I kind of messed that lap up. We have a little bit of work to do, but we're real close for qualifying."

ON RACING AT PHOENIX IN THE SPRING VERSUS THE FALL "The biggest difference is that one's a night race and one's a day race. As long as the sun is out here, the track temperature is hot. The air can be really nice and cool like it is this weekend, but the track temperature can still be fairly warm and slick. Today the grip and track conditions have been optimal. It's been fantastic."

ARE THE NO. 24 AND NO. 48 MAKING PERSONNEL CHANGES? "We've made a few changes already for this weekend, just trying to get prepared for next season and give those individuals the opportunity to seek employment if they want to go to another team, so this gives them an opportunity before we go into the off-season."

ARE THESE ENGINEERS OR CREW GUYS? "Every year, every season, we get to this point in the season and it's a little bit different if you're in the championship hunt because you don't want to change anything, but for us we're sitting in fifth right now with two races to go and we're trying to not only think about these next two races, but we're trying to think about 2009. Our team has generally tried to get some experience with those new individuals before the season starts, so we get a comfort level and understand how we're going to be going about things. What we do is we evaluate the team as a whole and the whole organization of Hendrick Motorsports and we determine how we can be better. Where are we weak? Where can we be stronger?

"And sometimes it's how we build the car; sometimes it's personnel and we're going to do everything we possibly can to make ourselves as strong as possible. So we have a little bit in engineering, a little bit in mechanics, and all kinds of different areas. Right now, the changes have just been with one engineer and one mechanic.

"Hendrick Motorsports is in a very strong position right now. We have sponsorship secured for all the teams through 2009 and some teams further than that. This is a pretty general evaluation that we do yearly. And so it's nothing really out of the norm."

NASCAR ILLUSTRATED RANKED YOU 5TH IN DRIVERS FOR 2009. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT? Honestly I don't pay much attention to that because we did have a great year this year and we're fifth in points, so it's not been a terrible year. All that matters to me is what we do on the track track, not where we're ranked. The only ranking I care about is at the banquet (laughs) in New York at the end of the season."

WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH CREW CHIEF STEVE LETARTE? "Our relationship is real good. We've had some heart to hearts this year. It's been tough on everybody. We came off such a strong year last year. We had high expectations and felt like we had another shot at it this year and it obviously hasn't gone that way. So, when it's been disappointing like that, then you've got to figure out everything you can do as a team and as individuals to be better. All the hard work is put into all the testing and everything. Steve and I have also had a lot of conversations. It's only made us stronger. It made me believe in him even more because he's doing everything that he possibly can to create the best environment and a strong team and a winning combination. And we've made improvements.

"We started off a little bit behind at the beginning of the year and we've only made improvements. And I think this type of year can only make a guy like him, and our whole team, stronger (by) going through these tough times and not being strong. It's a lot easier to be together when everything is going your way. When things aren't going your way, that's when the true test comes. I believe 100% in Steve. He's made many great calls, even this year, that haven't always showed up as great calls. So, I understand criticism and how all that plays out, but we as a team know he's the guy."

ON TONY STEWART NOT BEING IN THE NO. 20 CAR NEXT YEAR "Yeah, there are going to be changes like that over the years. It's just like Mark Martin not being in the No. 6 car. It always takes some time to adjust to it, but I think that it's exciting to see Joey Logano coming into the sport. He's a great talent. At the same time I think it's really exciting to see Tony making a big move. It's probably going to be more unique to not have Tony in the Home Depot car. I think seeing him in a different car is what's going to really be unique."

ON RACING AT PHOENIX "We had a good day today and we just focused on qualifying. We feel like track position is really important. So we just focused on that. And the car is really strong. We've got a great jot. We got a good draw, a late draw, as well as a really strong car for qualifying. So far so good."

ON CARL EDWARDS "Carl has been spot-on. They had the problem in Charlotte that was completely out of his control. That really got him behind. The incident at Talladega was a real learning experience for him. Other than that, I think he's been spot-on. That team has been strong all year.

"I think Carl has the maturity and the experience to win this championship and if he doesn't win it this year, it's only going to make him stronger next year. The difference between him and Kyle Busch is I feel like Kyle and the team, and how long they've worked together, I've felt like that was going to play a role once the Chase came around and it did. But I think it's also going to make them much stronger for next year. I feel like Carl came in focus-ready, and that team have been strong the last couple of years."

LEADERSHIP COMES IN MANY FORMS AND THERE ARE MANY QUESTIONS IN THIS GARAGE BECAUSE OF THE ECONOMY. IS NASCAR DOING ENOUGH? IS THERE MUCH MORE THEY CAN DO TO HELP TEAMS OUT? "That's a good question. And I'm not the one to ask. I'll leave that to somebody else to answer that one. We still have a great sport that is very strong and very exciting and we still have a great fan base come out and follow us and these are tough times and all our fan base is going to be challenged as much or more as anybody's because of the distance they have to travel to come here. The cost to come to races has gone up. And now with the economy in a tough place, it makes it tougher. But as far as leadership, I feel very confident in our leadership. To go any further into it, you need to talk to car owners like Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress and Jack Roush and Roger Penske and those guys would be much better."

IS THERE A WAY TO CUT COSTS WITHOUT AFFECTING PERFORMANCE ON TRACK? "No. I've never seen the costs in this sport go down (laughs). It only goes up. We're not asking for less money out of our sponsors because we're cutting costs. We're asking for more money out of them. So, if somebody out there is going to get the financial backing and support that they need to go and be successful next year and if they don't, if we don't keep up with that, we're going to be beat next year.

"So we're doing everything we possibly can to stay on top of our game and do the best that we can and think of all the areas that we can not waste money. And that's something we always so. Sometimes we're slacking in one area and we have to do and put our energy there and that's what we're doing right now. Now, you might go a little bit deeper into where you might be overdoing it a little bit."

WITH 16 OR 17 YEARS AS A DRIVER AT THIS TOP LEVEL, HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO RECONCILE WHEN YOU MIGHT RETIRE? "I don't know how long that's going to be. When you're driving for an organization like Hendrick, you have a lot of pluses going into every season. But also what goes along with that is high expectations and you've got to work hard to live up to those expectations as a team and as a driver, so I haven't really put too much thought into it. We have some contracts with our sponsors that come up in 2010 and some that are beyond that. So, Rick and I haven't really discussed it in length. I'm not going to race until I'm 50, I can tell you that. It's hard to say."

DOES IT CROSS YOUR MIND TO WAKE UP ONE DAY AND THINK YOU'VE DONE IT ALL AND THAT YOU WON'T RUN ANYMORE? "Oh, every season at this time of year (laughs), when there are two races to go and you feel like you're just drained. I think of it every year. You know maybe this off season I just won't come back next year (laughs), but then two weeks into it, I'm like man, I can't wait until the January test to start again."

ON JIMMIE JOHNSON GOING FOR THIRD CONSECUTIVE CHAMPIONSHIP "What I'd like to do is have a member of the media or a crew member that was around when Cale did three in a row, to put it in perspective. What were they thinking about Cale at that time when he won three-in-a-row? Obviously there have been a lot more statistics that have been in place in history now since then, but to me, I don't feel like you ever really get your true respect while you're doing it. I think it comes years later. And while I think Jimmie is going to go down as one of the all-time greats in our sport, I don't know if anybody is ready to give him that much credit and respect right now. And that happens for all of us; even for me. Until you go through some tough times and you go through the ups and downs, I don't think you ever really earn that full respect within the garage area and the media or the fans."

ARE THE REASONS THAT THE FANS HAVE BOOED JIMMIE JOHNSON, THE SAME REASONS THAT THEY HAVE BOOED YOU? "There is a little bit of difference. I'm not saying I'm a super-nice guy; I'm just saying that Jimmie is a super nice guy and he's very talented and he's won a lot of races and we drive for the same team and I think in that sense there are a lot of similarities. The only difference is that most of the boos that came my way came from the rivalry between the Earnhardt fans and my fans. That's what separated us. There has not been one distinctive rivalry. If anybody, it would be me last year that our fans would be against one another. But we kind of share the same fan base."

HAS YOUR CONNECTION WITH HIM AFFECTED HIS POPULARITY? "Probably. I think the obviously when you drive for Hendrick Motorsports, well prior to Junior coming on board, I think everybody thought of a Hendrick driver in a certain way and it may have related to me in some way because a lot of that has come from the success of the No. 24 team. But Jimmie and I are friends. We've spent a lot of time together as friends away from the race track. There is certainly a lot of continuity and bond there that very easily could be taken from the fans as okay, if I'm a Jeff fan I'm a Jimmie fan; if I'm not a Jeff fan, I'm not a Jimmie fan. But at the same time, he's got his own personality that I think a lot of people maybe just haven't had the opportunity to see it fully. And really, it's hard for any of us to really show our full personality when we're in this environment of sponsorship as well as competition. We're here to race. We stand here in front of the cameras and do this for 20 -- 30 minutes on the weekend and also we do interviews for ESPN or Fox of whatever, but do you really get to know somebody that way? So, yeah, there is definitely going to be a lot of people that are going to support us or support Jimmie because they support me or vice versa."

SO WHAT CAN HE DO? "Why does it have to happen right now, today? That's the thing. This guy is setting marks that are going to stand and be a part of history in this sport for a long time. And that's why I'm talking about the whole respect thing. For me, I just couldn't believe you know, why was I getting booed? I didn't understand it. I did everything I possibly could and it never changed it. What changed it is going through some down years, and having some personal issues. People want to find a way to connect to you. Until they see you going through some of the same things that they're going through, sometimes they don't have that connection."

ON THE PRIDE HE HAS IN MENTORING JIMMIE JOHNSON OVER THE YEAR "Oh, I'm extremely proud. I'm proud because when I met Jimmie, I knew he was just a really good down to earth kid that had a lot of talent and that could go a long way and had a bright future ahead of him. I was excited that it worked out at Hendrick Motorsports. And then not only did it work out to get him to Hendrick, but now he's had the success that he's had and it's just phenomenal. I'm excited for him because I think he deserves it. He's earned it. And the team has. I'm also proud because I'm a friend of his."

YOU SAID YOU SPENT MOST OF THE PRACTICE SESSIONS ON QUALIFYING RUNS. THAT'S NOT YOUR NORM AT A LOT OF TRACKS, IS IT? "This year, every once in a while we might start off in race conditions but very rarely have we this year. Every team does it different. But there are some tracks where all the Hendrick cars come exactly the same ready to qualify. Sometimes it might be just me. But that's what we like to do.

"Other guys that just feel like hey, we're not really good qualifiers or I'm not a good qualifier so we're better off spending more of our time on the race, knowing we're going to qualify bad anyway. I feel like I'm a pretty good qualifier. And I like the track position and the team agrees, so that's why we go about it that way."

DALE JUNIOR COMING TO HENDRICK WAS THE BIG STORY LAST YEAR. NOW, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF HIS PERFORMANCE? "Oh, I think it's been great. It's exciting to get him in the Chase this year and I know that was a big deal to get a win and I think probably if Rick (Hendrick) was here, he would say he was a little disappointed, and they would probably say the same, that things haven't gone a little better performing in the Chase because I feel like they were really optimistic to be a real threat for that championship with the type of consistency they've had this year. But he's been a great addition. I've had a lot of fun working with him and getting to know him better and I'm looking forward to having him as a teammate for a long time. He and Tony (Eury) Junior have been great assets for the whole organization."

DOES ANYTHING ABOUT HIM SURPRISE YOU? "Oh, he's just funny, just some of the things he says. Sometimes they're just natural and sometimes he means it to be, are just hilarious in our debriefs. We've had some good laughs this year on some things that he's said. It's good having him around. There are a lot of cool things that come along with having Junior there."

IS THERE ANYTHING FROM JUNIOR THAT YOU'VE PICKED UP, OR HAVE LEARNED FROM HIM? "You've got to respect his popularity and his heritage and whether it be having conversations about his dad or his upbringing. It's been a year where I've gotten to know him a lot better and he's a great guy. He's proved this year that he's a heck of a race car driver as well. So, he's not a guy that's just open for lots of information. So it takes time to get to know him."

-credit: gm racing

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Jimmie Johnson , Jack Roush , Roger Penske , Joey Logano , Mark Martin
Teams Hendrick Motorsports