Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet Monte Carlo visits with the media after being presented with the Driver of the Year Award for the fourth time: What is it like to be at the Daytona 500 without Dale Earnhardt? "It's not the same, that's for...
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet Monte Carlo visits with the media after being presented with the Driver of the Year Award for the fourth time:
What is it like to be at the Daytona 500 without Dale Earnhardt?
"It's not the same, that's for sure. He started out as the guy that I learned from and then he turned into the guy that I knew was going to be the toughest competition out there every time I came to Daytona. To me, it's not the same without him. I know we'll move on and the sport will continue to grow, but in my mind there's something missing. There were times when I dreaded seeing that black No. 3 in my mirror and there were times that I didn't. If you were racing him, you knew you were racing the best there was. If you beat him, you knew you accomplished something far greater than you could ever imagine. If you got beat by him, you knew you got beat by the best. I'll never forget the memories I have with Dale here at Daytona and there are things I'm doing out there today that I learned from him and that I credit him for bringing me to brand new level."
On his relationship with Jimmie Johnson, pole sitter for the Daytona 500
"I wasn't on the pole here my first year, but I did have a good finish. I ran second behind Dale Earnhardt in the closing laps and I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing or what I was going to do when it came down to the white flag. That's pretty much why I finished fifth. I learned a lot right then.
"I know how fortunate I was to come into Winston Cup with a great team and with a good organization with the resources that Hendrick Motorsports has. I saw a lot in Jimmie Johnson. He came to me for some advice and there were some opportunities that just came about. It pleases me to give a guy like Jimmie, who is such a good guy with so much raw talent and potential, the same chance that I had with good equipment and good people. I think we're going to be able to bring him along really fast. He's got the talent to be able to handle that. He's got the demeanor off the race track to handle it, too. He's got one of the best overall packages of any young driver I see out there. He's also going to bring a lot to our organization. Having that team under one roof with the No. 24 car is going to keep me competitive. We're really excited about it and I'm really proud of that team and the way they've come along. We all know that Daytona qualifying doesn't have a lot o do with the driver and Jimmie will be the first one to tell you that. But to have the opportunity to be up front and race and learn from the top guys like I did when I was a rookie is going to be a great experience for him. I think that's why rookies have done well over the past few years. They've come in with great racecars and great teams. It helps them to learn so much faster."
Will having the No. 48 car on the track sidetrack you, and how will you treat Jimmie Johnson when it comes to racing for position?
"I'm going to treat him like a rookie. The only way he's going to learn is if I teach him a few things. I talked to him earlier today and he said, 'I'm in school. I'm in class and I'm learning.' It's important to have a teammate out there that you can work with. It's no different than having Terry (Labonte) and Jerry (Nadeau) out there with me. I'm going to work with him as much as I can, but when it comes down to the end, I'm going to do what I can to win the race - especially next Thursday. It's going to be real important for me to get the best finish I can. I've got to start in position on the line; he's already got the pole.
"My interest in that car was getting it started and getting it out there on the race track. We had to make sure that all the right people were in place and that we had the right sponsor, which we certainly do, and that we gave Jimmie a great opportunity. But from here on out, until I retire, I'm basically his teammate. What's different about Jimmie compared to other teammates I've had is that Jimmie has a thousand questions and he doesn't mind asking them. And I don't mind answering them. I think we have a little bit closer work relationship because of the way our relationship started.
"But I am the driver of that No. 24 Chevrolet and that's where my focus is. Believe it or not, during the whole time we were trying to win the championship last year, Rick Hendrick and I were in meetings trying to get sponsorship for that team. I don't have a clue as to how we won that championship because there were a lot of long, long days and headaches because sponsorships are not easy to come by these days. I was definitely a salesman out there."
What are your thoughts on NASCAR's rules changes for the Fords?
"Well, they whined enough, I guess. Maybe NASCAR learned from their mistakes because when we wanted some changes for the Monte Carlo a few years back, they didn't make any. Now, we're wondering why they're doing something for them when they wouldn't do anything for us. So maybe they've learned from their mistakes and they're trying to make it right. That's fine. Those Fords were loose yesterday. I can't wait to see how loose they are now without that quarter-inch on their spoiler."
Without Dale Earnhardt, do you feel any added burdens or pressures to try to be another guy to be a pillar for this sport?
"The pressure was just on trying to perform and win races. I know that if I do the things I like to do and get paid to do, the rest will follow. I focus on the team."