Charlotte II: Winning team press conference, part 1

AN INTERVIEW WITH: JEFF GORDON RICK HENDRICK STEVE LETARTE KERRY THARP: We are going to roll into our winning team tonight, Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. Congratulations to this team, Rick Hendrick and crew chief Steve...


KERRY THARP: We are going to roll into our winning team tonight, Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. Congratulations to this team, Rick Hendrick and crew chief Steve Letarte.

Jeff, talk about your win out there tonight at Lowe's.

JEFF GORDON: Man, I don't know where to start. I'm fired up about this. I mean, I was fired up last week. Now because this is the final, last, duel, and this week, it's Charlotte; I was in here this week and getting asked the questions about, you know, how we haven't run or finished well here in the last several races, and it hasn't been since '99 that we've won, and just all the different obstacles that we had to overcome tonight, it really truly made this one very, very special.

I had my sister here, and in 81 race wins, she's never been to victory lane. She's been there and left and a lot of crazy stories, but to have her and family and friends and to do it here in Charlotte was just really special, and of course, with the championship on the line, every win is so important today.

And my goodness, if you don't win today, you know a guy that you're battling the points with is going to finish ahead of you, either Jimmie or Clint Bowyer; both of those guys are stepping it up, so it's a very special win.

KERRY THARP: Steve, your thoughts about tonight's race.

STEVE LETARTE: I can't say enough about everyone at DuPont Chevrolet. They came over here and we've had good cars the last couple of years over here. We just can't get the monkey off our back. We could never complete 500 miles, self?induced or just trouble. We really focused on this race to come over here and run all 500 miles and be patient. I think Jeff was extremely patient. I think the pit crew battled through a couple of bad stops and really came on strong there at the end and had some good stops when it mattered.

And we were just fortunate. I think the track came to our car a little bit and that last green flag run we were real good. And even after the yellow we were decent, just had a little bit of a fuel; I think everybody was having it, but it ended up working out.

KERRY THARP: This team has been on the entire year now, and as we have five races left in the Chase, definitely looks like a team on a mission. Your thoughts on this 24 team.

RICK HENDRICK: Well, I've seen it before and it always had a happy ending. So I hope that we can finish it off, five more races, and just, you know, it's been a real ?? Jeff's always done a super job, but he's raced smart all year, and then when it counted. And we've been good every week. That's what you have to do and put the finishes together. I couldn't be more proud of the job that they have done and the way they have clicked.

Q: Jeff, just to make sure of something, you sure did take off pretty good once Bowyer kind of rammed you in that green - white - checker started waving. Any idea why you were overdramatizing your fuel situation in those last cautions?

JEFF GORDON: If I was overdramatizing it, then I wouldn't have lost the lead. I mean, what happened was when that happened; I wanted to be more to the safe side. There's a reason why those guys drove by me on the restart prior to that and I'm really thankful that Kyle, he played it really smart. I think he had a little bit of a problem, too. But he could have run right over in the back of me and spun me out so easy, because I had no power as we went into turn one, and then Newman was smoking by us on that side. I don't think anybody would have touched us had we not had that fuel issue.

You know, on the last one, I just wanted to make ?? all I really cared about was not how got tires were or scuffed in or heating. All I cared was about we got a start where the engine didn't set the fuel out of the box there, the pick up tank. And I just ran around the flat

It wasn't that we with are running out of gas. I don't want to you take it the wrong way. When I say I was running out of gas, we were running out of gas because there wasn't enough with the banking running around slow to hold it up in the box inside the tank to where I was trying to scuff the tires, spin the tires. It was just sucking it right out of it or it was draining out into the rest of the tank. So when I ran around there flat, it was to keep as much fuel into the right side of the gas tank as I could. That way on the restart, I have plenty of power and didn't suck it out.

And so it took off great. It took off so good there at the end; I spun the tires all the way to the start/finish line. That's why Bowyer, he was kind of hanging back, and we were playing cat?and?mouse there. And when I took off, I was in trouble and spun the tires terrible. Luckily he hit me, he came to victory lane, said, "Sorry I hit you," and he said, "No, if you had not of hit me, you would have passed me."

Q: A lot of times when people win championships or major golf tournaments, there's a moment that happens that you go, okay, this is ours or we're start of destined to win this. Fred Couples hit a ball at the Masters one year that stuck on the side of a bank and made the ball stop like it had Velcro on it. Is this one of those moments, and do you think if you can pull it out, you can do anything?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, there's too much racing left to go. Just like, you know, we were trying to survive at Talladega and we did, trying to get a win, we were trying to survive tonight. Our goal coming into it was to get to the end, 500 miles. I think we felt like if we could get 500 miles, we would have a Top?5 car. But you know, there's no doubt that this team has an amazing chemistry about it. We have some great things that are going our way. You know, call it luck, karma, whatever you want to call it. There's some great things happening, but there are still five races to go and all that has to continue in order for us to get this championship.

So, you know, those types of things that take you out of it can happen at any time, and we don't take that for granted. We know we've got to approach next week or going track to track to track; we are going to Martinsville with the same attitude, same game plan to come out of there with a strong consistent finish. We are not going there saying, this is our place to get another win. We just want to go there and keep doing what we've been doing and stay consistent.

Q: This is kind of a small matter, but I don't know if you remember, on lap 83, I think it was, you came up on Dale Junior and gave him kind of a shove, he got loose and then you scooted past. I just didn't understand the sequence of events, whether he had done something to or the of irk you or that was just what you needed to do at that moment.

JEFF GORDON: Yeah, no, I figured you guys would pick up on that. No, what happened, he had been running that high line, and he's just got this tremendous momentum up there on top, but it took a long time to come in.

So I was closing on him and it was only a few laps after the restart and I was on the bottom. And so I drove into turn three, and he had been running the high line and he drove right down to the bottom right in front of me and so I carried the speed in there, and my car worked so good on the bottom, and his car obviously didn't, because I went to the throttle and he was like still on the brakes.

And I wasn't trying to move him out of the way.  I was going to try to
get as much momentum as I could.  But when I bumped hip, I was like,
oops.  Then I was able to get by him.  You know, that's all it was.

Q: Jeff, congratulations on your win tonight, but I know you won ?? the way the win transpired, the way you worked your way and the race played out tonight did, that play out exactly as you were laying it out, or did your strategy towards the end give you the opportunity to be in the right position to get this win tonight?

JEFF GORDON: Yeah, we pretty much scripted that one three or four days ago. (Laughter) I mean, come on.

No, you can't. You never know how races are going to unwind. You can't lay out any set plan. You need to ask Steve. He's a game planner and he's a guy who makes the calls up there, asking about two tires, four tires, gas and goes. I just do my best to try to give races away here at the end in Charlotte and still pull it off.

You want to talk about the strategy and what your game plan was and how you had that all figured out?

STEVE LETARTE: It worked good until the yellow came out after the green flag run. It's no secret when you come to these mile?and?a?half tracks, especially with a hard tire and really grippy asphalt, it's a game of cat?and?mouse and when you're going to take how many tires and when you're going to stay out.

We played conservative for the first 150 laps. I put the poor guy here in a bunch of bad positions because he kept giving up track position with poor tires. And we didn't want to show our hand; and you take a risk every time you put four tires on for flat tires.

We cruised around for half the race and had we saw how other people had done. And we had a goal from 100 laps in, we had a strategy from there, we never took four the rest of the night. We took lefts, we took rights, and it worked out; the car was the best at the end. The green flag run I think said it all. If the yellows did not come out, it was going to be an uneventful night. And seems what always happens at Charlotte, the yellows started falling and we got a lot of story lines.

Q: I'm going to go way past the Chase on this one. Your next couple victories you're going to go by some Mt. Rushmore?like names in NASCAR racing. Do you have 25 more wins left you, because that puts you past Pearson?

RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, he does.

JEFF GORDON: I'm really trying to savor and enjoy this one right now. I just told Rick when I sat down here, I don't know how we ever got to 81. That's an incredible number and an incredible accomplishment and I'm very proud of that. I'm not even thinking about 82 now. So you're going to have ask me that ?? hold on that to that question until we can talk about it a little more.

Do I have 25 left in me?  I don't know.  A couple years ago, I didn't
think I had any left in me.  So right now, we're just having one of those
spectacular seasons.  We're just going to try to finish it out and see
what we get, and next year is a whole new season.  Who knows?

Q: For any of you three, have you ever seen three races in a row that have finished that strange, and has this been by far the strangest Chase we've had?

STEVE LETARTE: I don't know about the strangest Chase. I think they all have their different story lines. Last year everyone ruled Jimmie Johnson had and he had I don't know how many top twos to win it.

But I never assume I've seen the strangest race ever. This sport throws curveballs at you left and right. I can think back in the late 90s, if it can happen, it happened for different people. I mean, Dale Earnhardt cut a tire on the last lap of the Daytona 500, was a pretty strange finish.

I think that's why there's such a distance; it's 500 miles, when you come into it, you have to run all 500 miles, and that's been our motto here lately. I think that's what got us behind in some races this year is maybe we got a little lax before we got to the end, me especially, got off my game and my pit strategy. So we try to finish them. It's one thing to take the lead and it's another thing to finish the game. That's what we're trying to do week?in, week?out.

Q: After the restart, you had Ryan Newman fly by you; you had Kyle Busch behind you; Clint Bowyer behind you; you thought you were running out of gas. To be able to make it through all that, what role does your experience in the series and being a four?time champion play in being able to make it past all that stuff?

JEFF GORDON: Zero. I mean, you don't ?? experience, talent, whatever; none of that plays a role at that point. At that point, I drove into turn one, and, you know, I had my foot flat to the floor and it was as if somebody shut the switch off on the engine. And I knew ?? I had a pretty good idea that it was going to come back.

You know, we've had this happen before. There are several times when you get late in the race and you stretch it out and you're not low on fuel or you're going to run out; you're low on getting enough for the pick up. And the pump is trying to suck so much out and it's just not enough volume; sometimes it gravitates in there.

So we've had it happen before, it's been a long time, and you know, I guess I just wasn't ?? knew enough about it to run around the apron prior to that. I wish I would have done that on the restart because I don't think we would have lost the lead. I thought we would be okay.

But you know, so the other experience maybe was that it's happened before, and I knew it was going to come back eventually. I just hoped in the middle of the corner when I got into the corner, enough fuel would start to get to the right side of the tank and it was finally starting to pick it up, which it did. I went in there and saw my mirror where the five was right on me and I was just waiting for him to hit me because ?? not that you know, I expected him to hit me. It's just he thought I was going to be going.

And when it wasn't going, you know, I just thought that for sure somebody was going to stack it up or me stack it up and they were going to get the back of me. I tried to move up a little bit and that's when he got underneath me and the 12 just blew by on the outside, and I was just like, "Come on fuel, come back, please." And it came back and all the way down the back straight.

I'm just looking to fuel pressure and it's just sitting there hovering on six, seven pounds, which is not very much. And I'm like, is this thing running out, or is it going to come back, what's it going to do? I went through the next corner and it was fine and just that was it. I was just like, well, hopefully it lasts until the end. That's all I could do.

Q: (No microphone.)

JEFF GORDON: I wasn't really focused on that. I was just focused on, "Please come back, fuel." I just wanted it to come back as soon as possible. Because I was telling them on the caution, "This thing is running out of fuel, it's running out of fuel."

And Steve told me, "It's not running out of fuel. You've got plenty of fuel." And we talked about what to do, and we just didn't talk enough about, I guess I came on kind of late about it. I didn't do much down the back straightaway. I thought enough of it would stay there in the back straightaway, but it just was running out in turns three and four. NASCAR doesn't like me running around the apron there coming into the last restart, but I wasn't taking a chance. Luckily enough, it finally worked out.

Q: When you crossed the finish line, you made reference to a horseshoe in human anatomy. I'm not trying to get you to jinx yourself here, but the things that have happened, the birth of your daughter and passing Earnhardt on the wins list and the races like here, Darlington, Pocono, is it hard not to feel like this is your year; that for some reason, whatever reason, all of these things are happening for a reason?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I'm going to tell you right now, I don't care what happens with the championship, this is my year, just because I'm being a father. And even with the wins that we've had so far and the kind of year on and off the racetrack for me personally, it's just been the most incredible year.

You know, I hope more than anything that we can, you know, seal that off with a championship because, you know, it would be just one of those dream years that I don't think I could ever even touch ever again; even better than '98 and the 13 wins in the championship.

So you know, it's kind of hard to put into words and perspective, and you know, I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe that you've got to work hard to put yourself in good position to make good things happen. You know, you've got to have good karma and there's a lot of factors that play into why the chemistry of a team and certain people, you know, make special things happen; why it's some people one year and not the next. I don't have all the answers to it but whatever we're doing, we're going to keep doing it and see what happens

Continued in part 2

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Ryan Newman , Clint Bowyer , Kyle Busch