[NASCAR Winston Cup Teleconference with Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet Monte Carl and his crew chief, Robbie Loomis.] Note: Jeff Gordon is the defending champion of the upcoming Talladega 500 (April 22). In his 16 NASCAR ...
[NASCAR Winston Cup Teleconference with Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet Monte Carl and his crew chief, Robbie Loomis.]
Note: Jeff Gordon is the defending champion of the upcoming Talladega 500 (April 22). In his 16 NASCAR Winston Cup races at Talladega, Gordon has eight top-10 finishes and two wins. He finished 4th in the Talladega race last October, the Winston 500.
Like the rest of us, are you happy to have an off-week this weekend?
"Oh, absolutely. I always look forward to them and there aren't very many of them these days. So I'm certainly going to just relax and stay at home and enjoy just spending time with my wife. Plus, it comes at a good time because I think Martinsville wore a lot of us out."
Have you had a chance at all this year to discuss with Ray Evernham how it's going with him and his Dodge program?
"We do get a chance to see one another and talk. I haven't gone into detail with him about his program. Certainly at Daytona I was congratulating him for sandbagging.....because all through practice, they weren't that fast. But it was a great effort for him to sit on the pole. I know that he's very dedicated and a hard-working guy. They're going to really be a strong team. And right now, I think they have had some struggles. But I haven't really gotten into detail with him, but I do get a chance to talk to him."
The big topic this year is tires. Do you think we can expect the new tires to impact strategy at all tracks or just select tracks like Martinsville or Bristol?
"Well, the way it turned out this weekend at Martinsville, it didn't play as big of a role as we thought, at least for me. I wish I would have come in and got tires, when at Bristol it would have been much smarter to stay out. So it's kind of caught us. You think it's going to do one thing at one racetrack and it doesn't. And like on the short tracks, you think it's going to do the same at Martinsville as it did at maybe Bristol. It just didn't work out that way for us. I think it just depends on the racetrack, really. There are some tracks that are wider and easier to pass on, and some tracks that are very narrow and tough to pass on like Texas. So when it comes down to being hard to pass, your track position is going to be more important than fresh tires."
You started winning races at a young age, and Dale Jarrett was nearly 35 when he won his first race. Now, at age 44 it could be on the verge of the best season of his career. Do you think because of those facts that he gets less credit than he deserves?
"I definitely think he doesn't get as much credit has he deserves. He's a great athlete. You look at anything he does and he excels at it. Maybe it has something to do with Todd Parrott, who is known as a great crew chief. Maybe it has something to do with Robert Yates, who is known for having great teams and great engines. I've been in that same position before where everybody says it must be Hendrick Motorsports or maybe it's the engines or maybe it's Ray Evernham and things like that. I know what it's like to be in that position. If Dale thinks the same way I do, it doesn't matter how much credit they give you as long as I'm out there winning and battling for a championship. That's what matters the most. And it is a total team effort so a lot of times, people maybe put too much emphasis on one person and not enough on the total effort."
You're now 122 points behind Dale Jarrett and at what point do you worry more about where Jarrett finishes than about where you finish?
"That time comes when you finish 12th at Martinsville and he wins and you were running ahead of him most of the day. That's when it starts to come. I think that when you're a team that's won a championship before, then you start winning that championship at the first race of the season and you start thinking about it every single race weekend. So right now, we've got to look and see who our competition is and see who is outrunning us, and see how we stack up. Right now it seems like you've got to run your own race. You can't pay too much attention to the other guys. When I look at reasons why we haven't won more races than we have, it's not necessarily because we just got beat on a heads-up race. It's because maybe pit strategy has caught us behind or because of an engine failure at Darlington and things like that. So we've just got to stick to our plan and do what we do best which is continue to get better as the race goes on. We've just got to make a little bit better calls in the pits and get our car a little bit better on the long runs. But I think we're very competitive right now. Jarrett is the guy to beat, so he certainly is somebody that everybody is thinking about."
After eight races now, are you surprised at who is doing well and who isn't?
"Oh, absolutely. You look at some of the guys that are pretty far down the list and you never expected them to have started the season off the way they have. But I look at it as easily as someone can have a bad start to the season, others can have the same thing happen to them. So, the likelihood of a lot of different guys at the top of the points having problems is pretty slim. But I still see those guys as good teams that are capable of running up front - guys like Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, and others. They're going to work their way up there."
Are you comfortable going to Talladega? Are you fearful? Give us your thoughts on this race
"Do I have to? I'm enjoying this off-week. It's not necessarily something I look forward to. It's a very, very strenuous race. Last time I was there, my eyeballs hurt. When the race was over, my head hurt just because I was having to use my concentration level so much. It's just amazing what goes on there with 43 cars and the way we're stacked up there and with the rules we have now. There's no doubt in my mind we can have a safe race there because we did last year. Just the likelihood and the chances of someone making a mistake and there being a multi-car crash - it's there. Anytime it's there, you're a little concerned about it. Once they drop the green flag, I'm just going to get into the same mode that I do every weekend which is to drive as hard as I can, get to the front and try to stay there, and try to stay out of trouble."
As the defending champion, what's the key to winning at Talladega?
"I was the champion before they made the rule change. I felt like I had learned so much from Dale Earnhardt on the superspeedways - just knowing what the air does and how to make passes when they say you couldn't make a pass by yourself. I think that there are a handful of guys that had the edge and that had figured these things out, but that edge is gone. What it takes to win now is first, to be there at the finish and second thing is luck - whether or not you're out there at the right time. You can't block, you can't really do anything except hold your position and hope that that position gets you to the front on the last lap. There certainly is more strategy that happens on the last lap than there used to be. It used to be if you're leading on the last lap, you were probably going to win. Now, you need to be about third or fourth on the last lap to win."
At Daytona, the strategy of hanging back at the end obviously did not play out
"Again, my thoughts are to run as hard as you can and try to stay up front. When it's four deep, 10 rows back, it's pretty hard to have any kind of strategy. It's hard to move your way up to the front. It's hard to say when you're going to go from the front to the back or the back to the front. I think all you can do is just run your race and just hope that nothing happens. And if it does, just hope that you're not in it."
At what point did you finally get a comfort level with Robbie Loomis?
"I knew that the first time I ever spoke to him before we ever even hired him. He's a good guy. He's sharp and has a lot of experience too. I knew that right away. But it did take quite a few races. I think when we started going to the tracks the second time last year, that's when we really started to click and to get to know one another better and understand what our language was among one another. It did take a while."
Mike Helton announced a big crash-testing program yesterday. What do you know about that and will you have any involvement in it?
"I have heard a little bit about it. I've talked to Mike a little. These are things that have been in the works for a while, but we didn't hear a whole lot about it. Now, with what has happened, you're just hearing more of it coming out because a lot of people are asking questions. 'When is this going to happen and why isn't it happening?' It's not a reaction to that; it's actually something that's been in the works for a little while. I think, really, one of the number one things we need to work on right now is the actual chassis itself, the structure around the driver that makes up the car, to see if there are some areas where we can make it more collapsible or crushable where it can resist some of that impact. There's some structure in the car that is very, very stiff that gives you a lot of strength, but that doesn't necessarily give you some of the crash impact that maybe we could see. So that would be something I'd hope to see come out of it. The other things are the way these seats are designed, the way they are put in the cars, the type of foam material that we use around our heads supports and things like that."
Mike Helton says that he doesn't expect any announcements from that program until August, which assumes that means no rule changes at Daytona for July. What do you think about that?
"I don't really care for the rules that we have right now for the superspeedways. But I've made my car as safe as I can get it. And those are what the rules are and that's what I'm going to go out there and race. They're not going to make everybody happy out there. I don't know what really we could do that would be different right now without it being tested that would be an improvement. What works at Daytona doesn't necessarily work at Talladega, or vice-versa. Those tracks are very different. I know what NASCAR wants to do. Their goal is to keep the same thing from Daytona to Talladega because they're dealing with restrictor plates and the same templates and all that. They want to keep it as easy for the teams, and for their officials to inspect the cars. It's a tough task. I don't envy those guys at all. It's just not easy to find something that's safe and makes for good racing. It's a very difficult situation."
In light of the recent safety reports by the medical expert, have you changed things or do you think you're doing the right thing inside your car?
"That has no effect on what I'm doing in the car because I feel like I'm doing everything I possibly can. I felt like until the HANS device came along, you're constantly trying to learn more and do more to make the cockpit as safe as you possible can. The HANS device is something that I'm still not comfortable with, but I'm wearing it. I'm just taking the initiative to do whatever it takes. It still needs work; it's certainly not perfect. I'm also doing a lot with my head supports in the cars. It's basically what I've been running for the last several years, but have maybe taken it to the next level. I'll tell you why I did it is because of John Melvin, who works for GM. He's put out a seminar on videotape. If you look at his testing with the IRL and the CART Series and the little bit of sled testing that he's done, I've basically tried to do everything that he said to do. And that was before anything every happened at Daytona."
Did you wear the HANS device at Martinsville?
"I did not wear it at Bristol or Martinsville. I've got a new mold that I'm working on that fits me better. The last time I wore it at Texas, I thought it broke my collarbone and I didn't hit anything. I was very swollen and in a lot of pain. It's just because that HANS device that I've got right now is not molded to my body. I've got one that is already in their hands that's being molded to fit my body. As long as I've got one that fits me really good, I'll wear it - even at the short tracks. Those are the only two places where I haven't worn it. I plan on wearing it everywhere."
You had two or three years that were "Tiger Woods" years. Can anybody have that success again and are you satisfied with were you are right now?
"Well, not right now. I've only won one race. Unless I'm winning every race, I'm not going to be satisfied. I think Dale Jarrett's on his way to possibly do that if he can keep this up throughout the rest of the year. Then that could be a Tiger Woods type of year. Certainly '98 for me was something that I don't know if I'll ever top. That was pretty amazing, what we did that year to win the 13 races and all the top fives and the championship. But there's no doubt in my mind that it can happen. Even as competitive as things are right now, if one particular team/driver combination can get on a role, they can do it. Jarrett has won three out of the last four or five races, so to me that proves it can happen. And it can happen to any team that gets on a roll like that. Right now, I think our team is extremely strong. We've been in the top five every weekend. You knock on the door enough times and eventually it's going to open. If this team gets on a roll, there's no telling what we're capable of doing also."
Have you looked at a tape of Earnhardt winning the race at Talladega last year and how he was able to do that? Is it possible for that type of late-race charge to happen again?
"It can at Talladega. I remember watching the end of the race. I remember there was so much going on I didn't even know how I got to fourth. I wanted to see that and watch Dale's move to the front. Sometimes it's just circumstances and sometimes it's just making the right moves. It looked to me like a combination of those two things for Dale. At Talladega, because it's so wide, a lot can happen. You can move very fast to the front or very fast to the rear. Where at Daytona, it's a little bit narrower, a little bit harder to pass. If you get two or three wide, you kind of get stuck there. At Talladega, you have other options. You can go to the middle, you can go to the inside, and you can go to the outside. You've a lot of options there, so anything's possible. But you've got to have a little bit of help. If you don't have somebody pushing you a little bit, it's probably not going to happen. You've just got to make all the right moves there at the end. But there's no doubt in my mind that a guy can come from 13th or 15th or whatever, with one or two laps to go and still win the race."
With things gearing up at Indianapolis, and that you spent a number of years in the shadow of that racetrack, why did you go to NASCAR racing instead?
"I look back to the time when I made that jump, things were different. The IRL didn't exist. CART was a lot more than just Indianapolis, which was obviously the biggest race. I would have loved to race at Indianapolis. I grew up on oval tracks and open-wheel racing and my dream was to get to the Indianapolis 500. But when you looked at CART teams that were hiring drivers, a lot of reasons why they don't hire midget sprint car drivers is because their series is basically a road-racing series. The only raced on a few ovals a year. And I think that there just weren't any opportunities there for me. If the IRL had been in existence at that time, then maybe I would have tried that first and taken the path that Tony Stewart has taken. There just wasn't an opportunity. I couldn't be more pleased. I'm glad it worked out the way it did because I think NASCAR Winston Cup is the premier series in the United States. It's a perfect fit for me and obviously a lot of good things have happened to me since I've come into Winston Cup."
Have you had people knocking at your door to switch to open wheel?
"Every year. I've had a lot of calls to run Indianapolis. I've had a couple over the years about running the CART Series and had talks about running Formula I. But I made that decision a long time ago and as good as some of those offers have been, there's just nothing better than driving for Rick Hendrick and driving that No. 24 car. I plan on doing that as long as I'm driving a racecar."
Note: Loomis is from Forest City, Florida. He began as a crew chief in 1991at Petty Enterprises with Richard Petty as the driver. He joined Hendrick Motorsports in the year 2000 with Jeff Gordon.
What are your plans for the off weekend?
"We'll probably get away and do a little golfing and enjoy the beach a little bit."
What are your thoughts on Talladega?
"Always exciting. Talladega is one of those racetracks, you know I say all the time when we go to a restrictor-plate race, I feel like I've won the race if the driver comes out of there in one piece. We're just trying to look at everything and make the car as safe as we can make it. The guys are working on a lot of things for the aerodynamics, Dean (Ellis) and the guys. We're looking forward to going down there, but at the same time it's one of those racetracks where you look forward to leaving too."
How legitimate are these talks about boycotting Talladega?
"To be honest with you, they're not very legitimate at all. I think that everyone that's out there is a serious racer and a lot of times that stuff gets started because people look think they need to do something and try to want to force somebody into doing something. But really, we're all racers and if they're having a race at Talladega or at a little short track in Concord, we'd all be there."
What is the biggest difference between how the team performed last year to how you're performing this year?
"It's really hard to put your finger on any one thing. There's been a lot of areas that we've improved in. Our bodies are a lot better. Our engines are a lot better. We've got a lot of new personnel. But I think the big thing is just togetherness. The guys have really stuck together even through our rough times and our rough races. We've come back. We had a rough month in August and came back and won the Richmond race. So just really the strength of each individual on this team and working together had made a big difference."
Do you have engineers that are able to anticipate what the different set-ups should be with the new tires?
"We definitely have some great engineers with Brian Whitesell and we have a house full of them. They're working all the time on different things and looking at simulation. So when we go to the racetrack, we've got a smaller circle to work out of instead of an open book. I think definitely the sport's being driven that way. We do a lot of wind tunnel stuff and a lot of simulation on the computer. Brian Whitesell really head it up and does a great job with the engineering part of it."
Do you think there's anything to the fact that last year there were 10 different winners at the start of last year and the start of this year being the same has anything to do with teams just starting from scratch and just hitting it right?
"I think definitely there were a lot of changes in the tires throughout the year. You'd go to the racetrack and all of a sudden someone would hit on it and you'd see them shine. But the competition's a lot closer right now, and it just takes getting everybody on the same page. When you get everybody on the same page, it makes things a lot easier to be consistent with it from week to week."
-Team Monte Carlo