Daytona Duels: Race two first place team press conference, part 1

An interview with: Jeff Gordon Steve Letarte Rick Hendrick !@THE MODERATOR: We're joined by the champion of the second duel, driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon, his crew chief Steve Letarte, and team owner Rick...

An interview with:
Jeff Gordon
Steve Letarte
Rick Hendrick

!@THE MODERATOR: We're joined by the champion of the second duel, driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon, his crew chief Steve Letarte, and team owner Rick Hendrick.

Jeff, if you'll talk about your run out there this afternoon.

JEFF GORDON: Obviously, a really good one. You know, lost the lead there early. You know, I didn't want to lose the lead there, obviously I wanted to keep it if we could throughout the whole race. But it was great for us to get behind other cars and see what the car did in traffic because this is a test session for us.

My teammate Kyle made some great moves, got up there, I was able to get in behind him, just ride basically until we got there, feel the car out till we came to the pit stops. You know, my guys made a great pit stop, got us out first. From that point on, it was just about protecting the lead and feeling the car out, what it was like out front. Car drove great.

There at the end, it got pretty interesting with those guys that came in and took tires. I thought, you know, staying out was a great call by Steve. Luckily we had Kyle, our teammate, again back behind us. That probably saved us from some of those guys ganging up on us.

!@THE MODERATOR: Steve, talk about how the crew did today.

STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think the car was prepared really well. Everyone at Hendrick has done a spectacular job with our Speedway program. We've had a lot of speed since we've been here. The main focus of the day was to work on handling. I think the temperature helped a little bit with that. But I think it showed out there. The 5 had a great car. We also had a great car. I was really proud of the pit crew. That's an area we really tried to focus on this winter. To see them perform like this during the race was real exciting. Can't wait for Sunday.

!@THE MODERATOR: Rick, you had the top two finishers in this second duel. Your thoughts about that?

RICK HENDRICK: It was a good race. It's good when you got two cars that finish like that. You know, both cars ran well. Kyle got shuffled back and came back. He had a slip through his pits and cost him some time in his pit stops. To see him work that well and run that competitively, feel good about Sunday.

!@THE MODERATOR: Let's open it up for questions.

Q: Jeff, you're the defending 500 champion. You qualified second. You won this race. Are you the guy to beat on Sunday?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I don't know how you can just pick one guy. You know, this is restrictor plate racing. There's strong cars out here. I felt like the 38 was really strong in that first race. You know, I know that Tony and Junior and Jimmie and those guys who weren't in our race are going to be strong among a lot of other guys.

I definitely think we're one of the guys, I think with our track record here at Daytona. With the performance that we've got going for us already this week, you know, I'd like to think that we're one of the favorites. But whether we're the guy to beat or not, we'll find out in the closing laps of the 500.

Q: Jeff, last year you won the race that had to go green, white checkered. It seems like it's gotten to the point with this package you show up at Talladega or Daytona, it's like inevitable all the races are going to finish green white checkered. Both did today. Is it a simple matter that the packages are so tight that in the closing laps, somebody is going to get into somebody?

JEFF GORDON: Well, you know, obviously as the laps wind down, yeah, I think you got a point there. When it's so close and it's so tough to make passes, you're going to have guys get more and more desperate. Especially today, there were people that had ‑‑ whether they were going to start the 500 or not start the 500 on the line. That's a lot of pressure. It gets intense toward the end of the race.

So guys, you know, get more desperate and start making riskier moves. That's what's going to cause accidents. But I got to say, by having those no bump zones or whatever we want to call them, I think we saw a heck of a lot less crashes, big crashes, than what we could have seen.

I think that the racing was still good out there, but yet it was so much calmer. I'm basing it off of what I watched in the first race and what I saw in my mirror in the second race. Even being up there leading, knowing that, you know, somebody just didn't drive in the corner, and a way to pass is just drive in the back of you. I think that's going to make for a lot cleaner racing in the future on these types of tracks.

You're still going to see accidents, you always will, especially towards the closing laps of any race.

Q: Jeff, could you tell me your thoughts on this qualifying procedure, using the twins, versus the one that was in place a couple years ago.

JEFF GORDON: Well, I personally, and I think, you know, Steve would probably second this, that we like the fact that we got to make a pit stop now. Of course, since they made the fuel tanks smaller, I guess we'd probably be pitting anyway.

I think just being able to have the opportunity to make a pit stop and get your pit crew in sync, bring the whole total team effort into it, I like it better. You know, just going out there and running flat out with the same set of tires through a whole run, I think that you see, you know, in the end of a run, lap 15 to 25 or 30, you know, the cars get spread out, you don't see as much passing. I think this is more exciting for the fans, a better indication for the teams of what we have for Sunday.

Q: Jeff, I'm referring more towards the guys not racing their way in so much now as they used to have to with so many spots given by owner points, whereas last year there was more of a race to get into the 500.

JEFF GORDON: You know, you have to ask somebody else that. I would say guys ‑‑ there were a lot of cars here, I mean, almost 60 cars were here. There's a lot of guys that are still going home. As far as I'm concerned, there are still guys that have a lot on the line to gain or to lose.

I don't know. We weren't in that position. But we weren't in that position because we qualified in the front row. Had we not qualified on the front row, I can tell you, I would have been fighting out there to the last lap to get the best finish that I could for the 500 because we're all here, you know, to be in the 500 and to win the 500. There's a lot of different races going on out there. I think there's a lot on the line for a lot of guys.

I don't think it's really changed the intensity of it.

Q: Do you think today's race, your victory, sends a message to people who thought you might have slipped a bit after last year, which obviously you haven't?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I think anybody that feels like we slipped on the restrictor plate tracks haven't seen restrictor plate racing for the last couple years. I mean, I think that no matter what our seasons are like, what's happening with our team, we always seem to be pretty steady at restrictor plate tracks and at short tracks or road courses.

What I do like is just to see positive things happening. I think that says a lot and sends a message, you know, to us about the chemistry, the way the team's gelling. Like Steve said, to see the pit crew have a great stop like that, I think that says a lot right there. Because of the effort that was put in to make the pit crew better, we made a lot of changes within the organization. But our restrictor plate stuff has always been strong. I don't think it was a big surprise to us after testing that we were going to come down here and be a top five or top 10 car for qualifying, and thought we could be a threat for the 150s and the 500.

But having the total team together, that really does mean a lot. I think we carried some momentum for last year. I think we've definitely improved, and it's great to feel that energy happening right now. But, you know, again, I want to see that happening when we leave here and we're in California, we're in Vegas, we're in Texas. That's going to be the real indicators of where we're really at.

Q: You talked about yourself, kind of like a vindication, the confidence and momentum going into this season, doing well both in this race as well as over the weekend. How about for guys like Sadler and Earnhardt, what can this performance do for them going into the season?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I think everybody wants to get the season started off, you know, with something positive, to carry momentum out of here. You know, last year, we won three out of the first nine races. I think some of that was the momentum we carried out of Daytona. We were riding high for a very long time. I think it overshadowed some of the areas we were weak. So that momentum can carry you for a while.

It doesn't mean that you're going to make the Chase or win the championship obviously. You know, you got to take all that you can get any weekend that's positive and roll with it and keep it going and use it for your team to work together and build confidence and hope that you can carry that momentum.

You know, it's good for anybody. Doesn't matter who it is.

Q: A year ago when you won this race, you said that you liked being under the radar in the week leading up to it. You've kind of emerged as the favorite this week. I don't know if you saw in the recent media pole, NASCAR media selected you as the pre‑season championship favorite. Do you like being back into the headlines now this season, especially when you were out of the spotlight last year or would you like to be under the radar?

JEFF GORDON: You guys just like being gutsy and going outside of the box and surprising everybody, that's all that is (smiling).

Yeah, I thought we were going under the radar until you start hearing that. I don't think any of us want to be under the radar right here or after the 150. We definitely didn't want to come out of here finishing 15th or coming in and not even finishing the race. We wanted to come out here with a win.

But as far as it goes for the championship, it's not that we want to be under the radar, we just want to be able to focus on our program, on our people, on what we have to do to be as strong as we can as a team to compete for wins, compete for championships, and build that together without there being too many outside distractions. If we ever say we want to go under the radar, that's what we're trying to do. Because by the results of that are hopefully that eventually some point in the season, you're a big blob on the radar screen and everybody is gunning for you. That's obviously the ultimate goal.

We can't take one race and one qualifying run and all of a sudden say, "Here we are. We're the guys to beat." We know, you know, it's got to happen week in and week out. We hope that we're going to build on that every weekend and just get better and better and be a championship contender when it's all said and done by the end of the year.

Continued in part 2

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon