Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Impala SS , met with members of the media and talked about his relationship with his crew chief, his recent success, the new race car and other subjects. WITH EVERYTHING YOU'VE ACCOMPLISHED IN NASCAR, CAN YOU EXPLAIN...
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Impala SS , met with members of the media and talked about his relationship with his crew chief, his recent success, the new race car and other subjects.
WITH EVERYTHING YOU'VE ACCOMPLISHED IN NASCAR, CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW YOUR ROLE AS A LEADER AMONGST THE DRIVERS IN THE SPORT HAS EVOLVED? "I'm not a leader there. I've been in the sport for a while. We've been very successful winning races and championships and I think I have more respect in the garage area than I have in the past but I don't think anybody looks to me as a leader. I certainly don't look at myself that way. I'm just a guy that has experience dealing with all the things that come along with this series whether it's dealing with NASCAR, dealing with the media, sponsors, fans, trying to win races, going along not winning races. I'm just doing my thing the best way I know how."
DOES PART OF YOU WISH YOU WERE EMBRACED THE SAME WAY AS DALE EARNHARDT, IN THAT REGARD? "Not necessarily. That was something he actively took on. It's different today. There's too many other things going on. I look back at how much time he spent up in that truck with NASCAR. Number one is the same people aren't up there as were back then. And you don't have the time like you did back then to be able to do some of those things. I just remember a lot more dead space in the schedule throughout the weekend to go sit up there and when he was sitting up there that would encourage me to go sit up there. I didn't want him to be the only guy up there. Nowadays you don't see guys up there because one, you feel like you're a one man show fighting an 100-foot wall and the other is the schedule just doesn't allow it. So I don't really want that role, to me that was a lot of weight and pressure on his shoulders but it was something that he was wanting to do, not something that everybody else voted him into that position.
"I'm happy with the role I'm in right now. Life is good. I'm very comfortable with the role I'm playing right now in the sport. If I feel strongly about something, I'm going to speak up just like I did last week in the drivers meeting. But that wasn't like my first step to go and be the leader of the garage area."
MAYBE SOME OF THE OTHER DRIVERS ARE GLAD YOU VOICED YOUR OPINION. "From the few people that have come up to me there are a lot of guys thinking that and I think that some guys feel like if 'I said that, it wouldn't have any weight. Thank you for saying it because it did carry some weight'. So that made me feel good that they felt that way."
DO YOU HAVE A SPECIFIC MEMORY OF THE FIRST CONVERSATION YOU HAD WITH DALE EARNHARDT AND HOW YOU FELT AT THE TIME? DID YOU EVER THINK THAT YOU WOULD HAVE MORE WINS THAN HIM SOMEDAY? "I wish I could recall that. I can't. I just don't remember the first time I met Dale, when and where it was. I'm pretty sure that I met him while I was doing a Busch race in either 1991 or 1992. I certainly never thought anything about catching him in race wins. I remember he and I talked about when I was closing in on Rusty (Wallace) and how much he said that it would bug Rusty. He and Rusty were friends. Dale and I had conversations; I didn't understand why Rusty and I didn't seem to get along very well on the race track and he was the guy playing the middle of that. He would go to Rusty and say things to Rusty and then he'd come to me. It was kind of funny. We laughed about it. So no, I never dreamed I'd ever be. of course, I never dreamed that he wouldn't still be here racing and winning races either."
WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON THE FACT THAT DALE EARNHARDT, JR. MAY DRIVE A FORD NEXT YEAR? "Somebody give me the story. I know about Yates and DEI but you're assuming that he's going to be at DEI by saying that. I didn't say whether I thought he would be or not. I'm saying you're assuming that it would put him in a Ford. I'd be surprised if he was driving a Ford. I would be. But I think what Dale wants is to be a part of a team that could win a championship. With all the turmoil going on at DEI right now and his contract, it's going to take them a while to get out of that let alone try to combine with another organization. That to me will only take them backwards before taking them forward. I find that hard to believe that he feels like that's the move that can get him where he needs to be championship-wise. In the long run maybe it is."
DOES RACING THE NEW CAR HERE MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER ABOUT THIS RACE? "Yes. I think among other things I think our team has improved at so many other tracks this year or everywhere we go this year. I think we've just done our homework and we've got things working better because the cars are better. Because our setups are better. I think that this track has been good for me. I like this track. We've run very well here in the past. We've had such major brake issues the last four. I was telling somebody this earlier in the week that we've improved aerodynamics, horsepower, grip, everything so much over the last couple of years that we're going so much faster and maintaining that speed in the race to where it has really, for some reason more so with me than even some other guys, caused us to have some major brake issues. Not that we're running out of brakes or don't have enough brakes. Actually it's an issue where we're building up pad on the rotor that creates a vibration. Once that happens the chassis and the handling of the car is gone for the rest of the night. So the last three or four times we've been here, all I've had is a vibrating brake pedal through the whole night and we never could work on the car. So when we came here to test, even with this car we had the same problem. It was our goal to fix it and find it and I think we finally have. So I think that in itself is going to help us be more competitive throughout the race, at least I hope so. But then I think also the work that we've been doing with this car and with all of our cars has made us more competitive everywhere we go. I hope it shows up here too because I do like this track."
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS HAS BEEN DOMINATING LIKE FERRARI HAS IN F1. DO YOU THINK THE FANS WILL EVENTUALLY TUNE OUT IF YOU GUYS KEEP WINNING? "Nope. No. My job is not to get ratings. My job is to go out and win races and be competitive on the race track and I'm pretty sure Michael Schumacher felt the same way. Who knows why the ratings are up and why they are down. It's really hard to figure out. That's like trying to figure out the stock market. That's just near impossible and I think that when anybody dominates in a sport it brings on a certain amount of attention and then it might turn some people away. We're too early in the season to even be worried or thinking about that. I guarantee it's not going to be like a Ferrari domination. That's a whole different deal over in Formula One we're talking about here. It's impossible to have that kind of domination. While I think that Hendrick Motorsports is really doing well and our team is performing fantastic, I also know that we haven't led the most laps this year. Tony (Stewart) has. I also know that those Gibbs cars are due to get their act together and pull off the strong runs they've had by getting the strong finishes and that Roush is going to get stronger. Our season is so long that if you find something over the off-season that makes you competitive early in the season, then you have less room to work into improve, where the other teams can easily figure out where they're missing it, what they need and they catch up. That will only make our job that much tougher as they year goes on. My biggest fear is just that - that we're too good too early to where it's going to be tougher to maintain that all the way through the season."
ON YOUR SUCCESS THIS YEAR AFTER STRUGGLING FOR A FEW YEARS: "I think that if you looked at the No. 48 team and the success Jimmie (Johnson) has had since he's come to Hendrick Motorsports, I've heard the buzz and 'Jimmie, he's the new guy at Hendrick' and it's nice to know that we've still got it, that I still have it. It also shows you that it's a lot more than just a setup, it's a lot more than just one person on the team. It takes the whole combination and that's what we've got going on right now. We've got a group of guys that work extremely hard to improve our race cars. At the same time, to improve communication and chemistry and sometimes you can't make that happen. Sometimes you can't create it; it's got to happen on its own. That's the thing that I'm excited about, that we've been able to pull that off. Steve Letarte and I and how we get along and how he treats the people on the team has played a big part in that. It's exciting to be back as one of the strong guys. One of the guys to look at at Hendrick and on the track in general. I have no regrets of anything that's happened in my life, good or bad because I feel like it's only made me a better person, a better race car driver. People need to see the real person and go through real things like having bad days, having bad years and then be able to come back and follow that up with some good days and good years. I think that's helped earn us some respect within the garage and outside the garage."
DO YOU HAVE A MESSAGE TO YOUR WIFE FOR MOTHER'S DAY? DO YOU HAVE SPECIAL MEMORIES ABOUT YOUR MOTHER GROWING UP? "I'm going to definitely tell Ingrid that on Mother's Day and my mom on Mother's Day when I'm visiting with them back in Charlotte on that Sunday. There's no doubt that it's going to change me. How can it not. It changes every parent. The only thing I'm prepared for is for things to be different and to go at it the best way that I know how to. I'm excited that Mother's Day is coming up with everything going on and even thought the baby is not here yet, I feel like the things that Ingrid is going through right now, carrying the baby, is she truly is a mother. I plan on treating her like one and look forward to a family get together on that Mother's Day."
DO YOU THINK THE NEW CAR WILL CHANGE THE SIDE-BY-SIDE NATURE OF THIS RACE? "No. To me those are the things that we still have to learn. I wasn't sure how things would go at Phoenix and I was happily surprised that they went well at Phoenix. Not just because we won but I felt like you were able to maneuver about the same way, if not better. The thing is, aerodynamically, if we were going the same speed as the old car, aerodynamically there's no way it would be as good because these cars punch a bigger hole and don't have the downforce. The thing is though, because of that these cars aren't going as fast through the corners. So I think just slowing us down through the corners has maybe made up for some of the lack of downforce that we're depending on. I think that there's still a bit of work to do for the mile-and-a-halfs and some of the faster tracks so we might learn a little bit more at Darlington. We might learn a little bit about that here too. But I haven't run really here in traffic and we just have to kind of wait and see what happens in the race to really find out when we start running side-by-side. This place has really been a challenge to pass on in recent years with the current car so I think that it can only be as good as that with this car. So far I've been surprised and I think the teams have done a good job with making things better but to me the real test is going to be the bigger tracks. I wish more than anything that we had thought a little bit more about it at the beginning of the year. I think NASCAR has been surprised that things have gone maybe as smooth as they have so far but I really wish the All-Star race was in the new car. That we were on a mile-and-a-half this year in a non-points event and that would have been a perfect opportunity for us to really know what we've got."
YOU'VE HAD SUCCESS WITH EVERY CREW CHIEF. WHAT DOES STEVE LETARTE BRING TO THE TABLE? "Any great crew chief to me is a combination of things and he's had to work from the ground up which I think is important. He learned about being a part of a team as one of those guys that started sweeping the floors, basically. Maybe not sweeping floors but he was almost to that level as he came in as a young kid to the No. 24 shop. And then he started traveling on the road to the track doing tires and he's just continued to work his way up in the organization and know what it's like being a guy on the team for all those years. He's smart, he's got a lot of good common sense and I think that's important. He's very good with people. He knows how to communicate. He's a nice guy and he gets along with the guys. I think the thing where I was concerned. I've felt like he and I have always had chemistry. He and I have always been friends for a long time and always worked well together.
"The thing I wasn't sure about is when he got into that leadership role of how he was going to be able to demand respect with the guys that worked for him and how they were going to look to him as their boss. That's the part that he's impressed me the most with. Because he's taken a strong hold of it and he's put guys that weren't doing their job; he's put them on and said 'listen - just because we've been working as friends does not mean that I'm going to let you slide and get away with stuff. I've got to treat you just like I treat anybody else'. And he does the same to me. He treats me the same way where if he sees something in me that I'm not doing, he's not afraid to step up and say something. That's been the part that I think has really elevated him up and has really taken the whole team up because you've got to have respect as a crew chief. You've got to have people feel like you're making the right calls and that's what builds confidence. Guys have to believe in you and you've got to believe in them. That's taken him a little while to get that but that's what I see he has right now. Certainly with the calls he's made the last couple of races that have worked out, you don't question it. You sit there and go 'whatever you say'.
"That was definitely one of the things that I felt like Ray and I had in any crew chief when things were going right. That's what we had - you didn't second-guess or question those calls. I like the fact that he listens to me. When I tell him the car is loose here, he doesn't second-guess or question it one bit. He goes to work on it. I actually sometimes have to get it to where I might say 'don't listen to me on that area. That's not where the speed is at. The speed's over here, let's focus on that area'. So he believes in me and I like that. He knows that if he gives me the tools that we're going to get it done. I've been fortunate enough to show him that the last couple weeks. That's built his confidence up and by him doing the things to the cars and leading the team, making those calls like he made at Phoenix - go ahead and pit for those four tires - that's built his confidence up that I have for him."
THERE HAVE BEEN HARD HITS OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS. IS IT AS SAFE IS IT CAN BE? "It's never as safe as it can be. There's always more that we can do. I think that the thing I do like about the new car is that it's definitely a safer race car. Structurally I feel like it is. There's a lot of challenges that come along with that to be competitive out there and to build these cars that the team has to go through but from a safety standpoint I think it's a good thing. I'm not totally sold on the impact foam in the doors. I feel like that should be more of a honeycomb-type material, maybe made out of carbon-fiber or something. Maybe it's not carbon-fiber it needs to be made out of but I feel like there is better impact-resistant material out there to absorb these impacts and wrecks. I've always believed that a lighter race car was going to withstand impacts better than a heavier car. This car is heavier and has a higher center of gravity than our older car so those are things that I look at as what we could do but right now, things are safe. No doubt about it. I feel like our seats are better, the foam padding that we're using, the HANS device, the seat belts that I have. All those things are definitely better than what we've had in the past. I feel comfortable and safe out there but there's always more we could do."
WHAT HAS STEVE LETARTE DONE TO GET YOU COMFORTABLE IN THE CARS? CALE YARBOROUGH AND BOBBY ALLISON ARE WELCOMING YOU TO THEIR WIN NUMBERS SO WILL IT BE EASIER FOR YOU TO REACH THEM? "We won a championship in 2001. The No. 48 team comes on board in 2001 or 2002. Those guys take off with the stuff that we've been providing - 'here's the way we've been doing it,' boom. They start doing a good job and being competitive and two years later they're outperforming us. We're going to race tracks where he's running good and I'm struggling. That's a feel thing. If you're not comfortable the speed's not there. So when Steve came on board I basically told him 'listen, all I can tell you is what the car feels like' and we were basically building our cars at that point the way the No. 48 team was. They had had more success, they were running better than us so hey, let's go to their philosophy. That just didn't work for us. Jimmie drives so much different than I do. The way he uses the brakes, the way he applies the throttle through the middle of the corner just is a lot different. So we just found out we had to do different things with our aerodynamic package with the body, there's different things you can do with the nose of the car. This is the current car, the Monte Carlo. You can shift those bodies around so much and the way that Jimmie was driving that worked really well worked well for him but wasn't working for me. So that was something that we did. From that point on, the neat thing is that we found some things and it showed Steve, 'we've got to have what works for Jeff, not just what works for our whole organization'. There's certain components that are universal that work for every driver but not all of them. I'm very proud of him for stepping up and doing that test and then understanding and seeing the results coming from it. From that point on, we do our mile-and-a-half stuff a little bit different than they do even today.
"As far as getting to 83 and 84 wins, I just got to 77. I'm focused on getting a 78. It's not a number or statistic, it's not being sixth or fifth or third on the all-time win list, it's about winning races and being competitive. That's the only way I know how to put it. I admire and respect those guys so much because I know what it's taken to get to 77 and to know those guys are where they're at is an incredible accomplishment and if I ever get there it's something I'll be very proud of because I think those guys are as good as it gets. I'll be blown away if it does ever happen."
-credit: gm racing