Talladega II: Winning team interview, part 1

JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 DUPONT / PEPSI IMPALA SS, AND CREW CHIEF STEVE LETARTE YOU AND CHAD KNAUS (CREW CHIEF, NO. 48) HAD A STRATEGY TO LIE BACK FOR MOST OF THE RACE. WHY? LETARTE: "A lot of things went into the decision. The new car ...

JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 DUPONT / PEPSI IMPALA SS, AND CREW CHIEF STEVE LETARTE

YOU AND CHAD KNAUS (CREW CHIEF, NO. 48) HAD A STRATEGY TO LIE BACK FOR MOST OF THE RACE. WHY?

LETARTE: "A lot of things went into the decision. The new car was definitely one of them. We didn't know what the race was going to be like. There were a lot of predictions but nobody really knew. The other thing is that with this new car, just like the roof fins we used to have, the draft creates such a huge vacuum that you can safely hang back and not lose the pack. With the old car, if you made one mistake back there, your day is kind of over. And then there's the Chase. It's only 10 races. When you come here out of a 36-race schedule, a DNF isn't quite as a crucial as a 10-race schedule. It worked out. I'm sure it looked like the smart way to come now but there were some guys who ran up front all day long who had good days as well. It seemed to work for us."

DID THE PASS THRU PENALTY TURN OUT TO BE A BLESSING IN DISGUISE?

LETARTE: "Yeah, it's unfortunate. I hate to make mistakes. I hate when our crew makes mistakes. They hate it. They're a top-notch group of people. We need to clean those mistakes up. We got lucky with the yellow. It was definitely fortunate. I think we would have been hanging back anyway, so I'm not sure if we would have been in it (big wreck), but we can't have mistakes like that in the Chase and expect to be lucky like this every week. There are definite areas we need to work on. I give NASCAR credit. I didn't see the infraction initially, but it was clear as day when I saw the tape. So, they did a good job officiating; it was just unfortunate. It just shows that there is always something to be worked on. Our pit crew is great. Something as small as that can change your weekend. I would say yeah, we definitely got a little lucky missing that big accident."

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO GO TO THE SB-2 ENGINE WITH ALL THE INCIDENTS DEI AND RCR HAD TODAY WITH THE RO7 ENGINE?

LETARTE: "I honestly don't know. That's one thing I've learned at a company the size of Hendrick is when Jeff Andrews calls you on the phone and tells you you're going to run an SB2 at Talladega, I just nod and agree and make sure I have the right oil lines in the car. They do a phenomenal job. I know we had concern with just the package. I don't think we've ever run it here. I know we had a couple here to test, so I think they made the good decision. I know we had great power all day long; great reliability. I'm looking forward to having the RO7 at Daytona. I just think we have enough to work on in our company. We just didn't find that as a higher priority. We thought we were very competitive with the SB2 the last time we were here. I just don't think we saw an advantage to bring the RO7 yet, but I know by Daytona in February, our RO7 will definitely be a huge advantage."

DID THIS CAR SEEM TO BE MORE FORGIVING AND NIMBLE?

LETARTE: "I don't think I'd use the word nimble with this car. It has just so much downforce. There is nothing you can do to take it off. The rules are the rules. It's the same car we would race at a place like Charlotte or Martinsville. That obviously has a great deal more downforce than any car we would have brought here in the past. So I think with a smooth track and the tire Goodyear brought had some pretty good grip. They increased the stagger, which helped the cars roll through the corner. The overall downforce probably contributed to that."

ON THE WIN:

GORDON: "It was the hardest race to be in that type of mindset. I've never had to do that before where you're back there in the back just kind of riding along. I was running half-throttle. We were getting amazing fuel mileage. Based on what we found here in testing, and on where we qualified, that pretty much answered what our plan was for today. I've never done that before here. But knowing the way these cars draft, I believed in it. I told Rick Hendrick earlier this week that some guys were talking about that strategy and I said, 'I can't do it.' I think we've good to go out there and race and just let the chips fall where they may. I changed that after talking to Steve and seeing other guys. It was tough. I don't like just riding in the back. I want to be up there battling for the lead and leading laps and all that stuff. I knew we could get up there; I just didn't know how far up there we could get. And the cautions just fell right for us there at the end. And it wa s a great run with nine or eight (laps) to go to be able to work with our teammates to get up there. I really thought Jimmie (Johnson) was going to win the race. I was riding there in second and I really wasn't getting the momentum I felt like I needed to even make a pass on him if I wanted to. But when everything shuffled coming to the white flag, it changed everything."

WOULD YOU BE DISAPPOINTED TO KNOW THAT ONLY ONE BEER CAN WAS THROWN WHEN YOU WERE DOING YOUR BURNOUT?

GORDON: "I've got to admit I'm a little big disappointed in that (laughter). They might be throwing Mountain Dew cans next year. To me, I love coming here. I love when you can battle with 10 (laps) to go and it's wild and crazy like that. I don't like doing it for 500 miles, but I like doing it with 10 to go - especially when it turns out like that. The fans here get to see an awesome show. Honestly, I know I've got such a fan base of support out there that I'm okay if they're throwing things or booing as long as it's when we're doing a burnout and we're winning."

THE RACE TURNED ON TWO THINGS: EARLY, WHEN TONY STEWART SWOOPED WAY DOWN TO THE BOTTOM AND LOSING TRACK POSITION AND ON THE FINAL LAP, WHEN YOU WENT FROM DOWN TO UP ON THE TRACK IN FRONT OF STEWART IN A MOVE THAT PROBABLY WON THE RACE FOR YOU.

GORDON: "Interesting. Well, I didn't really see the move that Stewart made. I just saw where he lost the lead. And I was surprised with that. I'm guessing he went to go get in front of the line that was coming down the bottom. The reason why I didn't do that when they were coming up to me is that I wanted to get in front of them but they were coming with so much momentum, I felt like I would just get stuck three-wide and go backwards. Maybe that's what happened to him. But the closing rate on these cars is so drastic when you don't have someone pushing you; it's so drastic that you take a huge risk by getting out of line. And that was a risk worth taking on the white flag lap. But not maybe a risk worth taking earlier than that. I wish I could say that was all skill there at the end (laughs). My spotter played a very important role in that win there at the end. He was giving me a lot of information. I was sitting there with some good pushes and momentum, but the No. 12 and th e No.2 were just locking me down. They were on my quarter and on my outside and I couldn't really go anywhere if I wanted to. When they said they got three-wide, the momentum shifted and I was able to get clear of the No.12. I got a push from the No. 22 and I just went with it. And then I heard him say that the No. 20 had a run on the outside and it just happened when I made that move on Jimmie, he couldn't block me enough to the outside and I got to the outside and I looked at my mirror and here's the No. 20. So sometimes it works for you and sometimes it doesn't. But if you wait until the white flag, maybe you only go back five spots instead of 10 or 20."

TO CLARIFY, ARE YOU SAYING THAT UNLIKE IN THE DAYTONA 500 WHEN YOU STOLE SKINNER'S PUSH AWAY FROM EARNHARDT TO WIN, THAT THIS WAS HAPPENSTANCE THAT YOU CAUGHT THE DRILLING FROM STEWART?

GORDON: "Well it's a little bit of a mixture. I didn't necessarily see it, but my spotter told me. So I give him a lot of credit for telling me. What happened, was as we were going into Turn 1, I was stuck right behind Jimmie and the No. 22 or whoever that was lined up behind him. We had a pretty good line of cars there pushing quite a bit. And so then they told me there's a run coming; they're three-wide like behind you, outside of you, and so that told me that everything was going to shift. I didn't know if that lane was really going to push forward or not, but I had the momentum and I just wanted to at least just get up beside Jimmie. If you look at a lot of my wins that I've had on these tracks, what happens is I just try to get to the outside or to the inside on the last lap if I possibly, or with a couple laps to go if possible, and then let the line behind me dictate whether we win the race or not. And today was another one of those moments where that line behind me ha ppened to be Stewart with a lot of momentum. And he had no choice. He either was going to hit the wall or hit the cars on the inside of him or push me. He pushed me."

WHEN YOU ARE RIDING AROUND IN THE BACK, HOW HARD IS IT TO NOT GO TOO SOON?

GORDON: "It was terrible. I'm telling you, that was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in a race car. I like to think that I've got pretty good patience. But that's beyond patience. There is just nothing fun about that. But I knew it was the smart thing. I knew that if we never lost the draft that we could work our way back up there. We proved it one other time earlier in the race right before the green flag stops came, we started marching up there towards them. So, I knew we could do it. It was just a matter of when we got up there to them, were we going to be able to do anything with it? But man, being back there; I've never yawned in a race car in my life. I yawned back there just riding along. And I still think we need to work on this car a little bit. I think we would never race like that if we didn't have the closing rate that we had and the bump-drafting being so drastic that I think we need to make a few adjustments here. I knew the race was going to be spectacular at the end. It's always going to be spectacular at the end here at Talladega. But to me, that wasn't the kind of race that we want to see up to the 10 or 20-to-go mark, with guys riding single file and riding in the back with a group of 10 cars. It was just the cards that we were dealt by qualifying and sort of the box that we're in with this car."

AT MARTINSVILLE IN APRIL, YOU AND JIMMIE RACES THE FINAL 20 LAPS HARD AND YOU WERE UPSET WHEN YOU GOT OUT OF THE CAR. IT DIDN'T AFFECT YOU GOING FORWARD. NOW YOU GOT THE BEST OF JIMMIE HERE. HOW IS IT THAT YOU CAN RACE EACH OTHER AS HARD AS YOU DO WITHOUT AFFECTING YOUR RELATIONSHIP?

GORDON: "It has a lot to do with the communication we have. We're very fierce competitors, trust me. We love to beat one another and race one another. We have a lot of respect for one another. I think he's a tremendous talent. He's got a good head on his shoulders and I'm proud of him. He's going to win more championships and he could win it this year. But the way he came into it, he sort of looked up to me and came to me for advice. That started out a relationship. I respected him on the race track; he respected me. And then we became friends. One of the first things I told him when he was coming to HMS is that we're good enough friends and we have similar personalities that no matter what happens on the race track, we should be able to always get through it and put it aside off the race track. And yeah, I was mad at Martinsville. I was probably more mad that he beat me. He did every thing he should have done. No matter who that would have been, I probably felt it would have been the same way. I think that we've had some great battles and great wins and he's probably gotten the best of me here recently; a lot more than I have of him. Today it wasn't about teammates, it was about great competition and trying to win the race."

DID THIS CAR SEEM TO BE MORE FORGIVING AND NIMBLE?

GORDON: "How about that 10 of the cars were riding around in the back, single file; and another five or six were single file ahead of that. I think that in some ways we set the tone. The fact that a lot of Chase drivers were riding around at the back, single file, just knowing we've got to get to the end. I think we saw some guys battling for position at times up front, but most of the time, once we got going, they were like hey, I'm content. Let's get single file and ride along here like those guys are doing in the back. But we'll do it up front. The problem is, when you're in a pack that big, all it takes is a blown engine or blown tire or the slightest little thing and boom, you can get caught up in it just as easily. And I was worried about that every single lap being back there with the eight or 10 cars that something was going to happen to one of us or the caution was going to come out or that somebody was going to check up and we were going to run over one another back there. So, yeah, I don't know. These cars are stuck pretty good. They drive good but I didn't have any problem with the way the car drove before here. They drove plenty good. They just didn't have the closing rate that these cars have. And the bumpers didn't line up quite as good."

WHAT ARE YOU IMPRESSIONS OF WHAT JACQUES VILLENEUVE DID IN HIS FIRST CUP RACE?

GORDON: "I'll be honest. I wasn't around him a whole lot. The fact that he didn't run into anything and that he had a clean race and finished on the lead lap says a lot. Today wasn't a typical Talladega race. Today, guys were being a lot more careful and you didn't see the tight packs that you normally see here. I'm glad this one is out of the way. I'm glad he was here and he got to run here. I hope he got to mix it up there at the end to see what it's really like and get this experience and move on."

HOW DO YOU THINK YOU AND JIMMIE JOHNSON AND YOUR TEAMS WOULD HANDLE A HEAD-TO-HEAD BATTLE FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP?

GORDON: "Let's wait and see. It's too early to really say that. We've just got to keep going race to race. Steve and Chad get along really well. It starts at the top in how your leadership handles things. And between those guys and the way that me and Jimmie handle ourselves, I think that says it all. It is tough. Each team wants to get it done. Those guys get certain bonuses when they win and we get certain bonuses when we win. They get bigger bonuses though (laughs). The Lowe's guys. They really perk it up there. I think it's really about what goes on in the shop. Steve should answer this one."

LETARTE: "Well, the biggest thing is the misconception in your question is that there's two separate teams. There are only two people in our shop that wear one sponsor and that's Chas (Knaus) and myself. The other 85 employees all wear Lowe's and DuPont on their shirts and they work on both cars. The gentleman that jacks our race car builds the brakes for Chad. His gasman builds the brakes for the No. 24 car. They are such intermingled; I wouldn't even know where to draw a line to have competition. Make no mistake about it, when we drop the green flag, there is a specific group that has a No.24 fire suit on or a No. 48 fire suit on and we're here to win. We work to get here to win. But the 85 people we have there do an amazing job. They are extremely mature. They've taken a very difficult situation and they've made it a very successful situation and they deserve a lot of the credit. Chad and I lead that, but Jeff's and Jimmie's friendship and the way they communicate shows a lot. We love to see guys race. At Martinsville I wanted to win and he wanted to win, but it was the next day or so when we were testing somewhere and everyone was still okay. We do a very good job as a group to leave it on the race track."

Continued in part 2

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup