An Interview With: Jeff Gordon
AMANDA ELLIS: Good morning, everyone. With us today is Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Jeff has one win and currently leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings. Jeff, thanks for joining us.
Next week we head to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where you'll celebrate the 20th anniversary of your win in the inaugural Brickyard race. Talk a little bit about that win and what it's like going back now 20 years later.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, every time it's something special when you go to Indianapolis. It's just such a cool place, so much history, and obviously a lot of great memories for me and confidence. As a driver when I go there, of course it takes a great car and a great team to win that race, but it seems like most years that we've been there, we've had a car that's capable of winning.
With the type of season that we're having, I'm extremely excited about going to Indianapolis. I think that the way that our cars are performing, the way our engines are performing, Indianapolis is a track that we certainly can win at. It's hard to believe it's been 20 years, but looking forward to celebrating those 20 years hopefully with another win.
Q. Looking back to the earliest stages of your career, it seemed like Ray Evernham really pioneered having what amounted to a professional sports team of specialized athletes to pit your car when he put together the Rainbow Warriors as your pit crew. How big of a piece was that to the early successes you guys enjoyed as a team, and just how revolutionary was that in shaping how pit stops are performed today?
JEFF GORDON: I think every great crew chief sort of revolutionizes things. They're always looking at what area can you find the most significant gain, and I think Ray really started focusing and understanding that races could be won or lost on pit road by just gaining a couple tenths of a second and being consistent with that and seeing how it was getting harder and harder to gain those positions on the racetrack because of aerodynamics and track position.
Yeah, I think that pit crews evolved so much during that period of time where they were crew members or guys that worked in the shop during the week and then went to the track and were your best guys that could pit the car, where Ray said, you know what, we need to start bringing athletes in here and guys that were specialized and trained at changing tires, carrying tires, jacking the car, and I think it did revolutionize things.
Now look at it; we have whole training facilities and recruitment and everything else to get the best athletes we can to do that.
Q. You go into this break here leading the points. You're really in a good position to set yourself up here for these last six or seven races before you go into the Chase to try and get some more victories. How good do you feel about your position as you go into this week off?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I feel really good. Our team is really strong, very consistent. I thought yesterday at Loudon was a really great measure of the strength of our team because we got down at the beginning. Loudon is a very difficult racetrack to pass on, so track position is extremely important. To lose that track position early in the race with that puncture that we had in the right rear tire, I wasn't sure if we could climb or way back up in there, and we were able to show that our car was strong and pass cars on the track.
Also I thought Alan made some great calls in the pits to get that track position back, and we were able to lead some laps there at the end.
Unfortunately that last caution came out and we ended up running out of fuel, but I think that that as well as other races leading up to this point have shown just how much strength our team has.
I think we're in a good position. We recognize that it's all about wins right now and we need to win some more races to get ourselves seeded even better than what we are when that Chase starts. But regardless, I feel like we have a team that definitely can do very, very well in this new format over the 10 races in the Chase.
Q. The next two races are Indy and Pocono. You have to feel pretty good about your chances to win at both of those tracks.
JEFF GORDON: I do. Indianapolis is a great track for us, as strong as our cars are and our team is this year. I think Indianapolis is a track we can really shine, and we were really strong at Pocono the last time we were there. Yeah, I feel really, really good about these next couple races.
I've felt good about every track that we've gone to this year. That's the thing; the way the cars have been driving and as competitive as we've been, I'm excited to go to every track because I feel like we have a shot at a win just about everywhere we go.
Q. I have a then and now question for you. Having been at that first Brickyard race, obviously I remember quite a few things about it and so do the fans, but other than getting the win, what do you remember about that day because that was kind of one of the craziest race days that I can recall in a long time. What else stands out to you about that inaugural Brickyard?
JEFF GORDON: Not so much on the track other than the obvious battle that I had between Ernie Irvan and myself, his tire issues, us getting the win. Most of the things that stand out to me was really about just the madness and craziness of how big that event was, how popular it was among fans, not just traditional NASCAR fans but new fans to the sport. Even if you go back to the test that we had, the fans were just lined up on the fence around the garage area just wanting to see stock cars race at Indianapolis, and it was much of the same when it came to race day, just so many fans and you just couldn't walk anywhere without getting mobbed.
That just showed you the impact and significance of that inaugural event.
Q. And the now question I have for you is this: I know a lot of times that fans and the media like for there to be a rivalry. I'm just curious what your thoughts are; it kind of seems like the Penske and Hendrick operations are kind of separating themselves a little bit this year. Would you find that to be kind of a fair assessment, and do you feel like that's where things are headed and you're keeping an eye on them and vice versa? What do you make of any potential big rivalry between the two?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I mean, you've got the Ford versus Chevy, and then you've got both organizations seem to be on top of their game right now. I think that Stewart Haas, especially with Harvick, they've been really, really strong this year. To me there's that competitive rivalry that we have among all our competitors, and when one rises to the top, then they put a target on their back and you go after it, and you have that sort of rivalry.
And then there's that personal rivalry where you have run ins, you have word exchanges and different things that create a little bit more of a rivalry and excitement. You know, that's yet to be seen. There's been a little bit here and there, but you know, I think Brad certainly doesn't mind a little controversy and stirring it up as we've seen social media wise and just in the media, and so for us it's just going about our business trying to be the best that we possibly can, and those guys seem to be the teams to beat right now.
If there's any rivalry, it's just that we're working hard to go out there and be the most competitive team out there, and they seem to be between them and Harvick and some of the Stewart Haas guys, they seem to be the ones to beat right now.
Q. I've got a couple for you, the first being Hendrick Motorsports used one of its four tests at New Hampshire, but when you look at the results, I'm sure it didn't quite pan out the way you guys anticipated, and the Penske cars were so good and they didn't test there. Was that a little bit of a surprise that your cars didn't do better, or were the results kind of disguised in that maybe you guys learned more from that test and will have more when the Chase comes back?
JEFF GORDON: Well, any time you test the conditions are slightly different, and that was the case again in this instance, where the track temp was a little bit cooler when we tested, and that can sometimes cover up some things that you're really going to be working on when you come back for the race. So that was one of the things that we dealt with all weekend long, just a little bit less grip, and I was just having some issues getting the car to cut the middle of the corner.
I thought we resolved a lot of those in the race and our car was actually pretty good, but when we got behind early we never were in a position to really see where we stacked up against Brad. I mean, at the end he had fresher tires, so did the 11. We took a gamble to get there. I think we were a little bit stronger than what we showed. Jimmie with his early issues, we never really got to see what they were capable of, and I'm not sure what all went on with the 88 and the 5, but it wasn't overall the best day for Hendrick Motorsports in showing what we were really capable of. Obviously it was an excellent showing for the 2 car, and they're strong right now. They've really got their cars working well. They've got their confidence up. They're going to be tough to beat.
You know, I don't know I think we always learn something when we test, and I don't think our results this past weekend really showed everything that we learned from that test. Between the test and the race, we should be able to go back there and be more competitive.
Q. There was a lot of talk about the Joey Logano crash with Morgan Shepherd and a lot of discussion about minimum speeds and whatnot, and I think 10 years ago at Darlington you had an incident with Andy Hillenburg in which it was similar with a car struggling to kind of maintain minimum speed and you had a wreck. I was wondering do you have any thoughts on should NASCAR look at minimum speeds because I think that the pace was like 16 miles an hour faster than what the minimum speed was at New Hampshire, or are you comfortable with having cars that are running that slow on the track?
JEFF GORDON: No, I'm not comfortable with that. I don't think they have any place out there if they're running that slow, whether you're a car that's had damage and you can't maintain the minimum speed, or is the minimum speed the proper speed. I think it probably needs to be raised up at certain tracks where there's not a lot of falloff in the tire, then I think that minimum speed probably needs to be adjusted.
I don't know if that really contributed towards what happened with Morgan and Joey. The video doesn't show everything. You see Joey go by him. Obviously Morgan got loose and got into him.
The tricky thing about minimum speed at a place like New Hampshire, you've got cars all around the track. You've got a car that maybe can meet minimum speed in clean air, but they're really never in clean air because they're constantly getting passed or trying to make some room for the lap cars to go by. How do we truly measure minimum speed because if you do it every lap that they're getting passed by a faster car, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't make minimum speed, so I think NASCAR maybe looks at sometimes once they get into clean air are they making minimum speed, and at a place like New Hampshire or Martinsville, they're never in clean air, and I don't think they're ever going to make minimum speed.
Those numbers are NASCAR has those, I don't. I know that week in and week out there are certain cars that you're passing very, very often that you're questioning whether or not they're making minimum speed or if the minimum speed is really at the right pace.
Q. What do you think about the owners forming the RTA? Do you see that as a positive or a negative, and if it's a positive, what are some things that you think they can accomplish?
JEFF GORDON: Well, you know, I don't really see where things have changed a whole lot other than it's more official. They've been meeting for years to get together and communicate about where the sport is at, things that they can do to strengthen their teams, be more efficient. I think it's really just more of an official way to create that alliance, and I think it's a positive because our sport, in order for it to be strong, the teams need to be strong. They need to be profitable. They need to be able to do business, and it's turned into a big business, and it's constantly growing, and so I'm in support of it because if the teams are strong and more successful, then that's good for us that are part of the team and it's good for the sport, it's good for the fans, and so I think that this is definitely going to be something that we're all going to learn from and grow from, but I think it's something that definitely is only going to be good for the sport in general.
Q. I'm not using the word union, but would it be helpful to the drivers if they were organized in the same way the owners are attempting to be?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I think the way I look at this, this is a team alliance. It's not an owner alliance. Some people are saying that, but to me it's what's going to make the teams more efficient, stronger, more profitable, and to me that includes the drivers. That includes all the employees on each of those teams.
I think that it's in a lot of ways covering us, as well. We're aligned with the teams. I have a contract with a team and I want that team to be strong because I know if that team is strong, then that secures my position as a driver. It secures our sponsors and only helps us with our partners and our fans.
Q. Ever since the Brickyard came around, it's always been right around on the schedule the second Pocono race, whether before or after. They've always kind of fallen back to back there, and it seems drivers that are successful in one of the races are successful in the other. What is it about the two tracks that kind of translate to the success where you run good at one and run good at the other?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I think that Pocono has long straightaways that are fast, fairly flat corners, even though the three are unique and different, and there's some characteristics you compared it to Indianapolis, right?
JEFF GORDON: So that flat, kind of 90 degree turn at Indianapolis with those long straightaways has some characteristics that Pocono has, as well, and so, yeah, it's true. Typically if you're good at one you're going to be good at the other. The key is being good at the right place, and to me the tunnel turn at Pocono is very similar to some of the turns at Indianapolis, even though those four corners look the same, they're all a little bit different.
But it's about aerodynamics and power and just maximizing the grip, and it seems like if you do that well at Pocono, you're going to be pretty close at Indianapolis or vice versa.
Q. You talked a little bit about the madness and craziness of that inaugural Brickyard. Being an Indiana boy, what did it mean for you? Obviously you won it, but what did it mean to you to be running there for the first time?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I mean, I sort of am an adopted Hoosier. I didn't grow up there but I went to high school there, and Indiana was very significant to me in my career because of how much racing I got to do there at a young age.
But my love for Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500 goes way back to when I was racing in California, and I was racing open wheel cars on an oval, and so sprint cars at Indianapolis were what I looked up to and what I loved to watch as a kid. The drivers were my heroes. The race was one that I always put on the calendar that I was going to watch. I got a chance to go there as a kid when we traveled from California to Indiana to go visit the museum, go out to the racetrack as well as watch the race one particular time, and I was just in awe of the place.
I always wanted to race there, and to get that opportunity, especially an opportunity to win, it just is a way to live out a childhood dream.
Q. Can you just talk a little bit and expand on the impact that your time here in Hendricks County as a youngster had on your racing career?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, a huge one. The biggest was that in Indiana and Ohio and Illinois, all the tracks, the dirt tracks that I was able to race on, especially Bloomington is one that really stands out to me, they allowed me to race before I was 16 there. That experience was huge to get those laps, to learn how to drive that car at such a young age. I think it's what got me to the Cup Series at such a young age and has helped me be successful from that point on in any type of race car that I've ever been in.
You know, and then that goes to the area that I lived in out in Pittsboro, we had five acres with a shop in the back, we built our cars back there, worked on them. We had other people in racing that would come and sort of make that their camp if they were racing nearby, whether it was an NHRA team or a sprint car team, and then even to the school. The school was very open to understanding that this was something that I was on a career path for and was very serious about, and when I needed days off, because I was maybe traveling to Australia to race or a big race was happening in another part of the country, they were very open to working with us to be flexible about that.
That was something that didn't happen in California as well. I didn't get the chance they wouldn't let me race before I was 16. So Indiana played a huge role in getting me to where I am today.
Q. Can you speak to the connection that you have with the fans in this area, especially from Pittsboro and Hendricks County area?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah. I mean, it's amazing how the Indiana fans have treated me over the years. When I go to Indianapolis, I get obviously a bigger round of applause or whatever the area are cheering or clapping. It's louder there than it is anywhere else that we go, and that speaks volumes about my connection with Indiana and the way the fans treat me there. It's unlike any other place that I go, and I love it.
Q. I know you're not a crew chief, but we've heard so much about the change in the ride height rule this year, and I wondered from your perspective, do you have a feeling whether or not that's really having an impact on who's ahead and who's behind?
JEFF GORDON: Oh, I definitely think it is. If you look at teams that were strong last year that maybe are struggling a little bit this year, that ride height change has definitely made some significance because it's changed the aerodynamics a lot. It's changed what kind of springs we run in the car, and I think that the teams that have really understood that well and got on top of it early on have been very successful.
I contribute a lot of it, of what our team has done and that ride height rule, to the success that we're having. I really like a car that's secure into the corner. I drive deep into the corners. I like a car that's secure there, and that ride height rule, plus a little bit of extra spoiler, has definitely made me a little bit more comfortable getting into the car, it's given me more confidence, and I think our team has done an excellent job with the balance of the aero package that we have to get the car to turn well through the middle of the corner, as well.
It's all about being secure in, and then you've got to get the car to cut the middle of the corner and be secure off, and our team has done an excellent job with that.
Q. Do you just have more options available to you now to get the car where you want it to be since you don't have it set at one rigid height?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I think some teams had figured out how to take the old ride height rules and get the car down, and some were doing it with soft springs in the back, some were doing it with stiff springs. There was just a lot of ways to go about it, and now I think that when you've got those lower ride heights, you can really just get more detailed on the balance of the car and how you get the ride quality that you want in the front or the rear, and so, yeah, I do think it gives us a few more options, where before we had to think about getting the car down on the racetrack and then getting it to work with all four corners of the car and aerodynamically, so there's a lot more to think about.
Now I think it's a little more clear the areas to work in to gain the speed that we need and get the balance that we need.
AMANDA ELLIS: That's all the time we have today. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us.
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