JEFF GORDON, DRIVER OF THE NO. 24 DUPONT MONTE CARLO SS STEVIE LETARTE, CREW CHIEF RICK HENDRICK, TEAM OWNER, HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS Q: WITH YOUR 77TH CAREER VICTORY, YOU MOVE INTO SOLE POSSESSION OF SIXTH PLACE ON THE ALL-TIME WINNING LIST, ...
JEFF GORDON, DRIVER OF THE NO. 24 DUPONT MONTE CARLO SS
STEVIE LETARTE, CREW CHIEF
RICK HENDRICK, TEAM OWNER, HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS
Q: WITH YOUR 77TH CAREER VICTORY, YOU MOVE INTO SOLE POSSESSION OF SIXTH PLACE ON THE ALL-TIME WINNING LIST, BREAKING THE TIE WITH DALE EARNHARDT SR. THIS IS YOUR SECOND VICTORY IN 2007. YOU ARE THE POINTS LEADER FOR THE FIFTH STRAIGHT RACE. YOU NOW LEAD JEFF BURTON BY 203 POINTS. TALK ABOUT THE DAY:
GORDON (JG): "Obviously, we're thrilled. It was one of those days where it seemed like we couldn't anything wrong and then at the end, I didn't feel like were going to be anywhere close to the front. That's how this race is. You try to maintain track position. I knew we had a strong car. We seemed to be able to get some help to get out there and stay there. But the race got really unique and different there at the end. The way those guys were lined up, nobody was able to pass and nobody seemed to want to get out of line. There were a bunch of cars that were pretty far back. I kept asking Stevie to tell me how many laps there were to go. It was hard to have patience. I wanted to get out of that line. I knew how fast my race car was. I thought if three or four of us could get together, I knew we could go up there. But it was really hard to be patient. The only thing that helped us one time was when Steve was asking me to save fuel, so we were just sitting there riding.
"But after the restart when there was about nine (laps) to go, I knew things would get shuffled up and that's when the whole race started to come to us at that point. Everything did get shuffled up and we were bumping and banging all over the place. I just happened to get a great push from Jimmie (Johnson) and we drove from about 5th or 6th all the way to the lead. I don't know who was behind him, but he must have had a pretty good line of them behind him as well because we had a heck of a run. And then the caution came out. It was all about that last restart. I knew those guys were going to be tough. They were laying back doing all kinds of things. It felt like we were pretty good once they dropped the green. But then when I saw Jimmie get inside of McMurray, I thought oh boy, we're in trouble. I knew how good his stuff is and how good he is on these restrictor plate tracks. So that caution sort of saved us. I hate to win one like that. But I felt like we really earned it to get up there to be in that position. So I'm real proud of it."
LETARTE (SL): "I think Jeff said it the best. It was a very odd race for about the second two-thirds of the race. In the beginning, it was normal Talladega with two or three-wide most of the time. The new surface really promotes great racing. It's really smooth. The caution fell at a really odd time - right around a fuel window. It's a rare occurrence when you see everybody ride around until the end of the caution and then pit. That really set the tone for the whole race. And then I think everyone was forced to save fuel, including us. But it was very frustrating that nobody was making any moves. I thought at that point maybe we made a poor decision to lose our track position. It ended up working out okay. The caution, with about 12 to go, was like Jeff said, the turning point for the whole race. That forced everybody to show their hand and make their move. I can't say enough about our teammate. Jimmie Johnson gave us a couple of unbelievable pushes to pass some of those lapped cars and some of those faster cars. To get up there like that was really just a good day."
Q: THIS IS YOUR TEAM'S THIRD ONE-TWO FINISH THIS SEASON. TALK ABOUT JEFF'S WIN AND THE RUN YOUR ORGANIZATION IS ON RIGHT NOW
HENDRICK (RH) "I always enjoy watching Jeff drive these restrictor plate races. He did his job again today coming from the back a couple of times and working the traffic. There were a lot of good cars right there with him. At the end of the day he was where he needed to be and he made some great moves. Stevie made some great calls there at the end to protect us on fuel. It was a good day. All the cars ran good today. I hate it for Casey (Mears) and Kyle (Busch), but Jimmie (Johnson) ran second. We were really happy with that. It's been a heck of a year and you enjoy it while you can because you know a lot of these races we probably shouldn't have won. But we did. If we can be competitive, hopefully breaks will go our way. I just kind of wish we had the momentum in the last 10 (races) rather than the first 10."
Q: ON THE FANS THROWING THE BEER CANS, SHOULD NASCAR DO MORE TO POLICE THIS?
RH: "You hate for somebody to get hurt. We're going to paint the car anyway. There are dents in it. But you think about people sitting on the front row getting hit with those beer cans. It's really for the fans protection and the NASCAR officials standing down there. I don't know what you do. If you get enough people there to watch it, but there were so many of them I don't know what you do to stop it. It is dangerous. The drivers and NASCAR have talked about it. If you can't bring cans in the stands anymore, then they'd do it to themselves, maybe they'd used paper cups. Maybe that's the next step."
Q: IT SEEMS LIKE EVERY TIME YOU OR HMS WINS A RACE, THE FANS COMPLAIN ABOUT THE OFFICIATING. DOES THAT BOTHER YOU TO GET THIS REACTION FROM FANS?
JG: "You've got to look at the source. When Dale Earnhardt Jr wins and we don't, then my fans say ridiculous things. The majority of the fans out there - especially here - are huge Earnhardt fans, or just not Gordon fans or Hendrick Motorsports fans for that matter. You've got to be rational and use common sense. When somebody has a legitimate issue, I'll give it to them. But when somebody complains because their guy didn't win or somebody they don't like doesn't win, then that's when it gets a little bit silly. All I know is I was leading when the caution came out. I didn't know what happened or when it happened or when the caution should have been thrown. I can tell you that if NASCAR was ever going to fix things or lean in any direction, you'd think they would lean toward the majority. You've got to love the fans and the passion they have. You've got to let them express their feelings but you also have to use common sense. They've invited Steve and other people up to their booth for Busch races to see how they officiate a race and I'm sure that's for any driver or car owner or whoever wants to go up there. I think that's a good idea to see what kind of job they have because I don't think it's an easy one. And sometimes it works in your favor and sometimes it doesn't. We have them go all ways. We take them when we can and try not to complain about them when they don't."
Q: CAN YOU DETAIL THE KEY MOMENTS IN THE CHARGE TO THE FRONT AND DESCRIBE HOW CHALLENGING THIS STRETCH WAS?
JG: "I've got to go back and watch the video. So much happened. When there are three or four (laps) to go and there is so much going on and your spotter is in your ear saying all kinds of things and Steve is saying how many laps to go and guys are making moves and swapping moves. It's a blur. Your job is to put your foot on the floor, pick the right lane with momentum, and push or get a push from the right guy. The one thing that sticks out in my mind is that we cleared the two or three wide, I got a pretty good push. Stewart was behind me and Jimmie was behind him and I came up on Stremme. And Stremme moved up the race track a full car width. I had momentum and I was coming. He came down on me and our fenders touched. I went onto the apron and I actually had to check up just a little bit. When I did that, Stewart jumped to the outside and when he did that, Jimmie had a great run coming. When Jimmie came, he had nowhere to go but to push me and he hit me pretty good and pushed me and all of a sudden, all the momentum I had lost, was just regained. I actually was leading by the time we got into Turn 1. That's how big of a push I got. But it was because that momentum was broken, I was going to have a hard time getting to the lead at that point. I might have gotten to third or fourth and didn't know what would happen after that. Usually that kind of momentum change kills you. But because I had a guy like Jimmie behind me, it propels us to the lead. That's all I remember. Other than that, it was just crazy."
Q: ON SPEAKING UP TO NASCAR DURING THE DRIVERS MEETING
JG: "I was waiting for them to address what we all saw in the Busch race, which was out of control. I didn't hear it addressed. And so it was kind of a spur of the moment thing. After I watched the Busch race, I wanted to go see them before the driver's meeting. I didn't get a chance to. But I jut had to say something. I don't know if that made a difference or not. But today was one of the best days. Guys, yesterday, were bump-drafting. But they were doing it in a way that wasn't out of control. There were still crashes and things happened. When you get to the end of the race, all bets are off. It's going to get crazy. I wasn't surprised by the reaction from NASCAR saying we've got to police. It's going to be an ongoing battle we're going to have as drivers and competitors with NASCAR. How do we manage that? You want them to make the call to force us into a box, but then you don't want them to make a judgment call. You want to be able to police it as a driver, but your mindset is not capable of doing that out there on the race track. We're certainly not thinking rational. But it had nothing to do with trying to set an example for others of how you go about it. I always try to go about saying things to NASCAR as gingerly as I can to try to get my point across, but not put anything down or take away from anything or anybody."
Q: AFTER HAVING ALL THOSE BEER CANS THROWN AT YOU, YOU STOPPED AND DID A BURNOUT. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
JG: "It was probably a bad decision looking back on it and the safety of the fans. I can't get past remembering when I won this race with the battle with Junior and having the pictures of the car been showered by cans and things. I wanted to do a burnout and I felt like that was the best place to do it so I could get to pit road, but it was probably wasn't the best decision to do it where I did it."
Q: ON LAP 123 YOU WERE LEADING A FIVE-CAR TRAIN, YOU WERE CLOCKED JUST A LITTLE UNDER 200 MPH. ARE YOU COMFORTABLE AT THAT SPEED?
JG: "It was a very rare situation. There were two or three cars that were a little bit slower than us that I was drafting and at that time, I had a couple of guys lined up that were giving me a really good push at that time. So I got the draft off the cars ahead of me and the push from behind. I could see the rpm's really increase. At this track, we're always in control and comfortable when we're going in a straight line.
"It's not about safety of racing. I don't know if I'm the best one to address and decide that. These teams do such a good job that the cars have really picked up. We have a smaller restrictor plate. I don't know where they find the speed, but they seem to find it. The Car of Tomorrow can take care of a lot of those issues here at this place. We're not going to be able to run restricted like they were trying to do at Daytona, but I think with the right plate on it, as boxed as that car is, that should police itself.
"And Daytona is not an issue. One of the biggest problems you run into is that they want to run the same restrictor plate here that they run in Daytona and they're like two opposite race tracks. One is a very abrasive, narrow race track with handling being an issue. We're in and out of the gas. Here, it's smooth as glass, lots of grip, big sweeping corners, and maybe we need a little bit smaller restrictor plate. But I felt very comfortable out there. I thought everything was good other than maybe the speed we ran that lap."
Q: ON YOUR BURNOUT, WHEN NASCAR TOLD YOU TO COME ON TO VICTORY LANE, IT LOOKED LIKE YOU MIGHT JUST GO ON ALONG THE FENCE AND LET THEM HAVE THEIR FUN. DID YOU CONSIDER COMING ON DOWN OR WERE YOU GOING TO GO ONTO PIT ROAD ANYWAY?
JG: "Well, I kind of got a message about coming to Victory Lane. I thought they meant not to go out on the grass and spin around and all that stuff. I'm horrible at burnouts anyway, so I try not to do them very much anyway. I have my fans out there too. My fans want to see me celebrate. At that point, I wasn't thinking about the safety. I admit it was a bad decision."
Q: TALK ABOUT WHAT 77 WINS MEANS TO YOU
JG: "I'm thrilled to death to drive for Rick Hendrick. He's provided me and so many people awesome opportunities to go out there and have a lot of fun. I want to appreciate it and enjoy it and I also want to keep it going (laughs). We've got some tough competitors. I just don't think at this point I've taken enough time to really reflect on it. In the next days I'll think about and think how cool it is to have 77 victories. But I can tell you that shortly after that, it's going to be business as usual. I'm going to the shop after that - probably on Tuesday - I've got a bunch of stuff going on Wednesday and we're preparing for Richmond. But one day, I hope I'll have the opportunity to look back on every one of them and realize just how special it's been and the career I've had and the wins I had."
Q: HOW EMOTIONAL IS ALL THIS FOR YOU? DID YOU EVER THINK IT WOULD HAPPEN AT TALLADEGA?
JG: "On one side I want to just jump up and down and be fired up about winning 77 here at Talladega - knowing that three-quarters of the grandstands are pulling against us. And then on the other side, I respected Dale (Earnhardt) so much and learned so much from him and today being his birthday and knowing how many of those people up there would have loved to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. win this race today, it's tough. We come out here to win. And I'm trying to do the best job I can with the equipment that I've got. And these guys are giving me too good of stuff right now to not try to get everything out of it that I possibly can. I certainly didn't want to start a riot today. Hopefully nobody got injured with what happened. But I wanted to break that record and it's pretty awesome to do it here today. So I keep going back & forth. It's cool. Oh, man. Why did it have to happen at Talladega you know? It just goes back & forth."
Q: HOW HAS RICK HENDRICK'S BUSINESS MODEL CHANGED THE SPORT AND HOW ARE YOU CHANGING THE SPORT THIS YEAR WITH WHAT YOU'RE DOING?
RH: "We're having a lot of success this year. But we've also had some times when we haven't run as well. A year or two ago, Jack Roush had five cars in the top 10. The Gibbs cars could easily be sitting here with three wins. And we'd be sitting here with three. You enjoy it while you can. It's too competitive out there. There are other situations in the garage area that people are looking for partners and things. There are reasons for that. I don't think it's all that different in our situation. We've worked hard. We've made changes. We've brought in new people. We've had people leave us to go to other teams because they thought they could do better. So we just go about our business the same way every day - trying to be a little bit better each and every day. I think if you have two or three that are not working together, four are not going to fix it. I'm very fortunate to have the drivers and crew chiefs that I have. A lot of people questioned Stevie being the right person to step in with Jeff. He waited a year. He could have had an opportunity with one of the other teams, but he elected to wait for Jeff Gordon. We've kind of done our own thing. We don't let other people drive us into doing things that we don't think are good for our organization.
"We've been very fortunate. But we're sure not dominating. We've got the wins in the column. But if you look at some other guys that should or could have won some races and they had problems. Somewhere during the stretch here, you're going to ask us what happened. We were on such a roll that it just stopped. The problem is you can't maintain. It's too competitive out there."
Q: DID YOU GET EMOTIONAL IN THE CAR? WERE YOU EMOTIONALLY EXHAUSTED?
JG: "I've got a headache, I'll admit it. I don't think it's sunk in yet. I really just don't think it has. I think you hit right on it that this race is so mentally draining that you're just looking in your mirror, just trying to do everything right. You just feel like so much of it is in your hands as to the decisions you make that you have to live with. Throughout the race you're making good decisions, bad decisions and you're going forward or backwards. And it's amazing to me that you could be up there leading and everything's just going perfect and one little thing. All of a sudden I'm like 'uh oh, I'm going backwards'. That's frustrating and draining and I really don't think what today really means and what we accomplished, I can't say that it's sunk in just yet. I'm looking forward to taking a few breaths and getting away from the race track and really starting to think about it. To me, one of the things I look forward to the most in my life is that day where I can reflect on everything that's happened because it's been an incredible life. Don't get me all emotional now (laughs). Now it's starting to sink in a little bit more."
Continued in part 2