Friday morning comments from Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet Monte Carlo driver and series point-leader who has won the last three consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup races at Sears Point Raceway: Who do you think is your biggest threat right ...
Friday morning comments from Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet Monte Carlo driver and series point-leader who has won the last three consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup races at Sears Point Raceway:
Who do you think is your biggest threat right now?
"I still think it's so early that right now the biggest threat is ourselves and just making sure that we can stay consistent. We need to continue to have cars capable of winning and/or running in the top five. That's what we're focused on right now. I think what will happen is that we'll get a better idea of who is a threat as the year goes on. Obviously Ricky Rudd has been running real strong lately. And I just know that Dale Jarrett is going to be there at the end of the season because he's a good driver and he has a real good team. He's won a championship before and he's been a part of all that before. That whole team as a package has that experience. But Tony Stewart might go on a rampage. Rusty Wallace might go on a rampage. Who knows who will rise to the occasion and be there at the end of the season?"
Having won three in-a-row at Sears Point - '98, '99, '00 -- and three in-a-row at Watkins Glen - '97. '98, '99 - are you surprised at your road course record?
"I am surprised. What I do is I look back to '93, the first time I ran on a road course, and I think about how much I struggled. I rode behind guys in '94, when I was a top five car, and I thought, 'I don't know if I'll ever have what it takes to beat these guys and win on a road course.' When you watch somebody just drive away from you, it's tough. It's a surprise to me today to know that we've won three here at Sears Point. This is a track that I didn't think I'd ever win. Now to have won three in a row, it's pretty amazing."
Is there a chance for a fourth win?
"There's no doubt we've got a chance. I'm sure everybody's probably looking at us as being a threat. But if we don't go out there and perform and do what we're supposed to which is to continue to improve, then we won't win. I don't feel the pressure that we have to win, I just feel this is an opportunity for us to come in here and have a shot at winning."
At this point in your career, have you met your goals in NASCAR Winston Cup racing?
"My goals were pretty low. My (original) goal was just to get to Winston Cup. I had no idea that this sport was going to become what it has. I had no idea I would drive for Rick Hendrick in Winston Cup. To me, what I've accomplished and what I've been a part of has absolutely just all blown me away. I moved down south to North Carolina to drive for Bill Davis in a Busch Grand National car and my goal was just to see where it went and to see what came along. I hoped that I had what it took to drive a stock car and to be competitive. All of a sudden a year and a half later, I was getting offers to drive Winston Cup. When that came along, even when I signed with Rick Hendrick, I said to myself, 'I hope I've got what it takes to be in Winston Cup.' I felt pretty confident that I was going with the right car owner and the right team, but I didn't know if I had what it would take to win races at this level. So to my surprise, those things have come together. Once you win once, boy it really gets your confidence level up."
What personal adjustments did you have to make to feel comfortable in your surroundings now?
"There's no doubt that there's a transition period that you go through from just being a Winston Cup driver to being a winning Winston Cup driver. It's a big difference. When that happens, the media, the fans, everybody looks at you in a totally different light. There's no doubt that your celebrity status steps up. The biggest adjustment are things like when you're just driving down the road and somebody looks over and practically swerving to get you to pull over so that they can get your autograph. It still amazes me to this day that I can be driving along - of course doing the speed limit - and another car drives by me at a normal pace and then all of a sudden I see brake lights. I know right then. And I think, 'How the heck did that person just glance over and know that it was me sitting there?' That still blows me away to this day.
"But the biggest thing is that it can happen any time. You've just got to be prepared. Whether it's a request for an autograph or a handshake or somebody telling you how they don't like you, you've got to be prepared. At first, I struggled with that. When the 'boos' first started, I didn't understand it and I tried to figure it out. And then I realized that it was actually more of a good thing than a bad thing. All those things were adjustments. The schedule was just as much to adjust to as any type of celebrity status. Being recognized and understanding the responsibilities that come along with that are part of it. You're always looking over your shoulder - wondering if somebody's trying to see what you're eating. Those are thing that definitely are an adjustment.
"At first I used to get mad about things. I'd think that if I had a fork in my mouth that they shouldn't come over to me. Or if I was in the bathroom, somebody might come over and want to shake my hand. Now, I just go with the flow. Or if I'm running through the garage area, and I know I've got to be at the other end in 30 seconds for an interview or something, I try not to feel guilty if somebody comes up to me and tells me they drove 5,000 miles to get my autograph. If I don't stop for that one person, I try not to feel guilty - even though I usually do. And then I just try to do the best I can. I try to sit down and sign autographs whether it's at the racetrack or at home (fan mail) I try to do the best I can and balance it all out. I think that's probably the key. Balancing out family with work and all the things that come along with work and the scheduling of all these difference appearances and races. That helps me the most. As long as I know where I've got to be and I'm able to schedule it, I know I can relax when I need to relax. And I know that I've got to work when I've got to work. Whatever comes in between those two things is just part of the schedule.
"One thing that's probably helped me a lot (dealing with the fan pressure) is that Brooke and I went to the Oscar's a few years back. We got to go to the party of parties, the Vanity Fair party. Tom Cruise and Jim Carey and everybody was there and we got to be fans for a night. I wanted to approach these people and I wanted to say hello to them and I wanted to take a picture. Now, I'm not into the autographs. That doesn't appeal to me. I did take a picture with Tom Cruise. Luckily he did Days of Thunder and he knows about racing. He was very gracious. That was one of the most awesome nights Brooke and I have ever had. We could then understand and appreciate a little bit more when fans are about. It's still had to think that somebody might think of me the way I thought of Tom Cruise, but at the same time it helps you to understand and to be a little more humble about it. But I still don't understand what somebody's signature on a piece of paper does. Maybe it's more of a sports thing. I didn't get Tom Cruises's autograph, but I did get a picture. And it turned out great."
There wasn't anybody better to follow around the track than Dale Earnhardt. How long will it take you to stop wondering where he is on the track or when he's going to catch you?
"There's no doubt I learned a lot from him - especially at Daytona and Talladega. I was fortunate to have a team that put a good car out there that I was able to run with Dale. The way that he used mirror, the way he used the air, he was always somebody who could pass a car without any help. I was always fascinated by that. By watching him, I started to figure out how he was doing it. I don't know if I'll ever be as good as he was at doing that. But with today's rules you can throw all that out the window. All those things I learned? Out the window, you can forget about them. Now you can pass pretty much any time you want. You're so bunched up, you're three-wide all the time, I just sit there and ride and try to stay out of trouble and hope circumstances work out that I'm in the right place in the end. But there's no doubt that when you go to a place like Talladega and Daytona, he's on your mind because you know that he was the best that there ever was there - the best that I'll ever race against. And so the best is missing out there. And that brings back memories that you have of him."
How influential was he in helping you to reach the level of success that you've had?
"He didn't share much. He and I probably shared more business-type things like sponsors, fans, licensing - things like that -- off the racetrack. His office and my office touched base every week. But when there were some big issues on the table, he and I would talk. We were together in a project. We owned land together across the street from Lowe's Motor Speedway. We mainly talked about business. What I learned from him on the track, I had to pick-up myself. He wouldn't come over and share it with me. I think the only one he probably did that with was Jr. and maybe Steve Park and Michael Waltrip."
You could become the "road-course king" by winning this weekend. How important is that record and what would it mean to you?
"Records are fun and exciting when it's all over, but I don't approach it by shooting for a record. I just approach it as a good opportunity for us to run good and have a strong finish toward what we need for the points championship. I know that we've got a car and team capable of winning and I hope that we do, but when it's all over I hope I can say, 'Four in a row, that's great'. But right now, I don't approach it that way."
What role does your faith play in your life on the racetrack?
"It plays huge role. That's something I didn't have early on in my career - even in my Winston Cup career. It came shortly after that. When I talk about all those things in balancing out my life, God helps me to not worry, to do the best that I can. He helps me to not worry, to do the best that you can and to let him deal with a lot of the anguish and headaches and to make the best decisions you can. It's just somebody to lean on and a backboard to be there for you. If you've experienced it, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, you'll never understand what I'm talking about. It's definitely helped me have a peace about my life and trying to enjoy as much of my life as I can and live day-by-day because you just never know."
Do you like racing in California?
"One of the first times I ever drove a Sprint car was up at Kings Speedway. I raced all over California. It's fun for me to come back here because I've got a long list of people that I don't get a chance to see unless we come out here. There are family and friends that I used to go to school with or race with."