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March 28, 2006

Jeff Gordon

Steve Letarte

DENISE MALOOF: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to the NASCAR NEXTEL Series teleconference. First our usual bit of housekeeping. This week's NEXTEL Wake-Up Call will begin at 10:30 Friday morning at Martinsville Speedway media center, and Bobby Labonte, whose top 5 finish last Thursday was his best since March of 2001, is the guest.
Today we're joined by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who won both Martinsville events in 2005. He leads all active drivers with seven wins at this historic racetrack. He's tied with Rusty Wallace for third place in all-time Martinsville victories. He also begins this week in 7th place in the standings. Jeff, I think you're back.
JEFF GORDON: Well, thank you. I think we're very close to being back, that's for sure. I know we're going to be back in Martinsville this weekend, which we're very excited about with the success we had last year. Things are going really well for the team right now, so I couldn't be happier with the job that Steve Letarte is doing and the team that he's put together and the whole organization, Hendrick Motorsports. Things are going very well, and I think how well we've run the last three weeks, our races, are a good indication of things to come for us.
DENISE MALOOF: We will have Steve join us a little bit later, and when he does we will certainly break in and introduce him. We had last excitement last week at Bristol and now we're here for more of that action on another short track. Do you think we'll see more of the same thing or does Martinsville's smaller surface calm things down?
JEFF GORDON: It's ironic we go back-to-back on the short tracks and keep that excitement going. Bristol is the type of racetrack where it's fast, exciting, and there's a lot of actions, a lot of cautions; primarily because it's a one group racetrack it's fast, a one group race track that's tough to pass on, and that's why you see as many incidents as you see and as many flags as you see, as well.
It's probably why it's one of the fan favorites, as well, even though the competitors -- because it's a fun, fast racetrack. Kind of the same thing going to Martinsville, not as high paced and fast but still a one-group racetrack that's going to be difficult to pass on, and I'm sure we'll see plenty of cautions; not quite what you see at Bristol, but similar.
DENISE MALOOF: Let's take some questions for you.
CLAIRE LANG, XM SATELLITE RADIO: Obviously you had such a great run going until what happened at Bristol happened. Do you think that you should be penalized, and how so, for what happened between you and Matt Kenseth after the race? And if you are not, will people say it's because they're protecting Jeff Gordon? We've already had calls to that nature. Can you kind of go through what you think you deserve for that?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I know how NASCAR typically works, and I haven't heard anything yet, but I'm expecting to see a fine. I think that they're pretty clear about incidents after the race on Pit Road, and I had a very, very similar thing happen between me and Tony Stewart years ago where I got into him. He spun and -- he spun me on Pit Road, and they fined him. I wouldn't be surprised if something similar happens.
I hope that it's as minimal as possible because I did not make a conscious effort to go over to Matt or park near Matt; that's where NASCAR and my team told me to park. I was very angry at the time, and I got out of the car, and Matt walked over to my car. I think he said it best. It's not the best time to walk over to me, and I was angry and I showed it, and I told NASCAR that had I been thinking more clearly at the time without being so angry, then I'm sure I wouldn't have shoved him.
You've got to be responsible for your actions, and I'm sure something will come out later this afternoon.
CLAIRE LANG, XM SATELLITE RADIO: What do you think is over the line? Where do you draw the line? Years ago this was done every race at short tracks. Where is over the line now?
JEFF GORDON: Well, you've got to remember the sport's growth and where it's gone to and who we're representing, sponsors and fans and different things, and I think you want to keep it professional.
To me the shove was pretty much -- I guess when I was thinking about it -- I wasn't thinking, but when it happened, I knew that I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize my sponsors or anything else, but you know, I was angry, boom, I pushed him, and we'll find out if that's over the line this afternoon. I'm not encouraging that, I'm just telling you that's what happened. That's what I did, and at that moment you're not thinking about what's over the line and what's not.
JENNA FRYER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: I'm kind of curious, I was trying to think back and I can't remember any other time that I've seen you snap quite like that. You seem to always have taken the high road and maybe walked away or have gotten into a verbal argument. My first question is, one, is that what it was? Did you just sort of snap? Or are we going to see a bigger, badder Jeff Gordon from now on?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I think that I kind of heard a lot last year that maybe I wasn't being aggressive enough on the racetrack and different things. My team has done an awful lot this year to make our race cars better, to put me in better positions, better pit crew, better communication, and I'm giving them everything I possibly can out there on the racetrack because they deserve it. If that means I've got to be more aggressive, then I'm going to be more aggressive.
When you're more aggressive sometimes it carries over off the racetrack, as well. I'm still capable of taking the high road. I think you've got to look at every incident and isolate it because I typically would have driven on by. I would have gone back to my truck, been angry, done my interview and left there and not worried about it.
But the fact is that they pointed me to park there, and Matt's car was sitting right there, and as I get out, here he came over. At that moment you don't really -- at least I didn't, have very good control over my emotions. I typically do because I avoid those situations. In the future, there will be times when I'll avoid it and there will be other times when I'm going to voice it or show my emotions.
I guess that's maybe the Jeff Gordon that's evolved over the years is that when in the past I've reserved a lot of my emotions, I'm not afraid of showing them these days. You know, I'm just being me, and sometimes that's showing my anger and sometimes that's walking away from an incident.
JENNA FRYER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Your point on being a little bit more aggressive this year, Jeff Burton had some pretty pointed comments about you yesterday and your accident with Truex, and I guess your shot at Kenseth goes along with that. He sort of thinks your thing with Truex, that's been going on with you for years, and for whatever reason he thinks you get a free pass on that. Do you have any thoughts on that? One, has this stuff been going on for years; and two, do you maybe not get the scrutiny that a Kurt Busch or a Tony Stewart does?
JEFF GORDON: You know, if I'm involved in multiple incidents, I'm going to get the same scrutiny. I think it rarely happens with me, and I think that most people know that I race aggressively but clean. That doesn't mean that I'm not at fault at times. I understand totally why Martin and Jeff would be upset. I did not intentionally or consciously go out and wreck -- Martin completely checked up in front of me. The problem is I was an inch off his rear bumper when it happened, and he did not have one room for -- any time for error. He checked up trying to let the 29 car get in front of him, and I was on his bumper when it happened.
Now, that doesn't have anything to do with -- Jeff Burton is mad because he got caught up in the wreck. I don't see it being any different than the way he got into the 10 car. He didn't mean to get into the 10 car, but people checked up in front of him and he ran into the back of them. I think Jeff is just angry and upset. I've been racing with Jeff for many years, and we've had some great races and we've had great battles. We've raced one another clean and we've bumped into one another at times, as well.
You know, I don't know. I'm not going to -- I don't think there's any kind of double standard or anything else out there for me, and I don't expect it. I can tell you if I've done something intentionally I'm going to admit it and I'm going to pay the price for it, and if I've done something by accident, then I'm going to apologize and hope that somebody can forgive.
I've had it happen to me and I've done it to others, and when you're racing, sometimes it goes around full circle.
ED HINTON, TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS: Jeff, do you think that maybe even compared to the other major sports, NASCAR is getting a little -- not only are NASCAR officials getting a little too squeaky clean and taking some color out of the sport, and also, do you think we in the media -- let me give an example. Let's say a wide receiver gets mad at a DB who popped him and he gives him a shove exactly like you gave Matt. They throw a flag on him, he gets a personal foul, he gets a penalty and that's it. There's no fine involved, nobody in the media is asking that wide receiver if he snapped, if he's getting special treatment. Do you think this is all getting blown too far out of proportion even compared to the other leagues?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I think that what NASCAR wants to do is not let things get out of control. You know, a shove could turn into more, so I think that they recognize that, that we have emotions and we have situations that occur that sometimes aren't avoidable. I don't think that they want to take all those emotions away, I think they just want to try to control them as best as possible.
Everybody is responsible for their actions, no matter what they are out there, whether it's saying a word on an interview that isn't appropriate. The thing is you mentioned a penalty flag and somebody paying a penalty. They paid the penalty, though. In this case it was after the race. How do you pay the penalty? I think that's what NASCAR is going to address.
I can tell you that if points are taken away, I'm going to be pretty disappointed because I felt like I paid the price in my points by getting spun out in the last lap and going from 3rd to 21st. I'm hoping that it's a fine and it's not points, and I would understand that and agree with it.
ED HINTON, TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS: Do you think there's a contradiction there in that NASCAR and Bristol and everybody goes in promoting Bristol as a place for tempers and everybody dwells on tempers and when it happens during a race, everybody is watching NASCAR officials, and Denise just asked you, do you think it's going to continue at Martinsville. Isn't that kind of a contradiction that everybody is promoting this and then they penalize you for it; they get the benefit of the publicity out of it and then they expect you to be almost a robot as far as your temper is concerned?
JEFF GORDON: You know, all I know is that they have to make judgment calls and control it the best they possibly can. If they don't make judgments and discipline when it comes to things like this or actions on the racetrack, then I think people are going to take advantage of that and just continue to push the limits, and then where do you draw the line?
You know, the one thing that I think is interesting is that we see these things happen off the racetrack because we don't really see much action being taken from NASCAR on the racetrack. If somebody intentionally runs into another person on the racetrack, it seems like it has to be so obvious for NASCAR to take action that it usually doesn't happen. And yet off the racetrack, they're easy to jump at it and make those kinds of calls.
I mean, I do understand that they've got to keep some control there and make sure it doesn't get out of line, and I guess that's their way of doing it.
JOSH STEWART, LONG ISLAND PRESS: Like Jenna said earlier, you've always been very unflappable, very professional. Do you think the anger and emotion you showed last Sunday might endear you to some fans who have been into those Dale, Sr., Tony Stewart, more roughneck kind of drivers?
JEFF GORDON: The only way I know how to address this is that for many, many years I've been so reserved from controversy. For years I was just so concerned with, okay, what was this person going to think and what was that person going to think, and I was more caught up in that than I was in being true to myself.
What you see today is a more truer Jeff Gordon and who I really am. I'm not a robot; I have a personality and I have emotions and I have a humorous side to me and an angry side to me. I feel like I'm a fairly normal person. I guess I understand why I did some of the things that I did coming into this sport. I felt like an outsider, I felt like I wasn't a guy that is your typical NASCAR driver at that time, a guy who grew up in stock cars or from the southeast, and I felt like I needed to do extra things to be accepted. Some fans did and some fans didn't, but more of it was about being accepted within the garage area and earning respect within the garage area, so I chose to go that path.
Now that I've established myself and I'm older and understand life a little bit more, just really the way for me to enjoy life and enjoy racing more is to be me. If fans like that or don't like that is really not what I'm out for. I love the fans and I want them to pull for me, but I only want them to pull for me if they find something about me that is something that they like or something that they respect or appreciate.
DEAN McNULTY, TORONTO SUN: Just carrying on with that string here, you weren't the only one involved with bump-and-runs or controversy at Bristol on Sunday. Kurt Busch won the race on a bump-and-run near the end of the race, something you have done yourself many times, and yet he's been the subject of huge criticism, much like you were earlier in your career when you were racing with Earnhardt and the rest of them. Do you have any advice for Kurt of how he should handle the situation he's in now?
JEFF GORDON: Well, if I was Kurt, I would just try to not say too much, to get himself into more situations or controversy with other drivers. I think that Kurt is a very talented driver, and I think sometimes he says a little bit more than he needs to to try to cover himself or protect himself in defense. You know what, his talents on the racetrack speak for themselves, and he just needs to stick with his actions on the racetrack and continue to go forward.
For whatever reason, he's made a couple enemies out there. I'm really shocked by some of the comments that I've heard, especially from Harvick, and I don't know if he does that to get under Kurt's skin or whatever, but as long as Kurt is out there winning races, it's going to be hard for anybody to judge him or make comments.
DEAN McNULTY, TORONTO SUN: Looking ahead to this week's race in Martinsville, you come in there as two-time defending champion, what do you look -- do you leave everything that happened at Bristol on the track? Do you go in there with a clean slate on Sunday?
JEFF GORDON: Absolutely. You know, the way that I operate is I recognize that I'm going to be racing with the rest of these guys all year long and for the next several years. I'm not trying to make any enemies, and I don't expect them all to be my best friends, either. We're competitors and we've got to race week to week and I want to put everything behind me, what happened in Bristol.
I'm more than likely going to talk to Martin. I think that he's probably the only guy that's really upset at me. Matt and I talked after the race in the NASCAR trailer and I don't think there's any issues there. With Martin, I haven't had a chance to talk to him and I want to, not that I intentionally got into him, but it did happen and I feel bad that I spun him around and caused that type of a wreck. I hope we can talk about it and move on.
Other than that, I feel like Martinsville is a great opportunity for us to run good and maybe get back some of those points that we lost at Bristol, and I definitely want to go in there not trying to -- not going in with enemies and certainly throughout the race not trying to make any.
GREEN BAY PRESS GAZETTE: In your earlier comments, you alluded to the fact of Bristol being a one-group racetrack. I remember, and it was looking back talking to some people, I remember before they concreted Bristol, it had a high groove, as well. DW, Richard Petty rode that high line through that track and were very successful. It seemed like when they went and did the concrete work, it took out the high groove and has increased the number of cautions.
JEFF GORDON: That's correct.
GREEN BAY PRESS-GAZETTE: With them looking at resurfacing Bristol next year, do you think the critical thing for them to do is to find a way to get that second groove back in that track?
JEFF GORDON: Absolutely, and I've been very fortunate to where the engineers that have built Charlotte that are going to be doing the work at Las Vegas, also at Bristol, have talked to me and asked for my opinion and probably the opinions of other drivers, as well, on resurfacing some of these race tracks.
I'm excited with the things that they've been talking about doing for Bristol because it's not as much the concrete as it is just the banking and transitions and the way they lay the concrete in there. I think that there's definitely a way for them to get a second groove built in there, and I believe they've got some great ideas on how to make that happen, and I look forward to seeing it come together. I was expecting them to have already done some of those things, but it looks like Las Vegas has taken a precedent and Bristol will come next.
GREEN BAY PRESS-GAZETTE: Also, about the surface, I noted -- I heard it alluded to in the broadcast when I went back and played it again, they were talking about some of the rebar possibly coming up through the track and causing some of the tire problems.
JEFF GORDON: That was a couple years ago, but we haven't seen that happen recently.
GREEN BAY PRESS-GAZETTE: I knew they alluded to it again in the broadcast.
JEFF GORDON: They may have alluded to it, but we haven't had that issue for a while now.
GREEN BAY PRESS-GAZETTE: Just wanted to double check on that.
DENISE MALOOF: We are joined by Steve Letarte, who is joining us for a little while. Steve, you are going back to the track this week where you got your first win as Jeff's crew chief.
STEVE LETARTE: I'm really excited to be going back to Martinsville. I've always run very well there and excited to get back there.
JEFF GORDON: I'd like to go back to Bristol, too.
STEVE LETARTE: I would, too.
TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS: Even before Bristol there have been several driver altercations on and off the track this season, starting with Daytona. Why do you think that is?
JEFF GORDON: I think every year the sport gets more intense. I think that there is a lot on the line; every race and every lap is extremely crucial to a team's chemistry and their performance. Everything is so, I guess, intensified just by the competition getting tougher. I think that as the sport grows and gets more expensive, we're asking for more out of our sponsors, and in return they expect more. I think the same from the fans and the networks and everything else, and I think it's just intensified so much more, but more importantly, the competition has just gotten tighter and tougher. Every race you've got to perform; you've got to have good consistent finishes to be able to be in the Chase and to have a shot at the Championship.
TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS: You guys have always tested twice a year out at Phoenix. With the new testing rules, is that a definite disadvantage for Hendrick Motorsports not to be able to test?
JEFF GORDON: I don't know about testing twice a year, but we have tested there the last several years. You know, I think now that we have two races there a year that that helps a lot. Similar with Texas, where we would probably have done another test at Texas, but now we get two races there a year. Steve can probably elaborate on that a little bit more than I can.
TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS: Do you have any comment on that, Steve? I know Jeff won a pole out here recently and then Kyle Busch won a race out here. I know Jimmy has tested a lot out in Phoenix.
STEVE LETARTE: Yeah, we always seem to go to Phoenix to test, more than anything just for location of the race within the schedule; being at the end of the schedule and always trying to vie for championships and trying to compete for championships, we've always found that that race was very important to us. Like Jeff said, now that it's on the schedule twice and we get to go in the spring, it really helps going back in the fall and having a base setup and having an idea how you ran in the spring and really lets you attack it a little different.
Phoenix is a very odd track compared to others, and testing has helped in the past, but with the addition of a second race, I don't know if it'll be quite as necessary.
Q. I'm going to change the subject from pushing and stuff like that. Looking at your history at Martinsville, you've won there, if I count right, seven times, and only once was it not a back to back, and twice you've won three consecutive. What's the deal?
JEFF GORDON: (Laughing) obviously we like Martinsville, and Martinsville seems to like us. What's the deal? Well, it's like any other track that you go to that you have a lot of success at, or anybody has success at; it's a combination from the team putting together a great racecar, the communication between the driver and the crew and crew chief of putting the right adjustments into the car throughout the weekend, having good luck or putting yourself in a position to have good luck, and then the driver just having a knack for that racetrack. I feel with a good car at that racetrack, I think it's never any one thing.
Q. That knack and that feel that you're talking about, to a layman, how do you explain that? How do you explain that kind of dominance just from a driver's seat point of view?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, I've looked back at our wins, and rarely do they ever happen exactly the same. Sometimes it's a late call by the crew chief of two tires are staying out or four tires; it's always something different. But the one thing that's the same is being in good track position in those last I'd say 80 to 100 laps. If you're in the top two or three, you've got a really good shot at winning that race. So you've got to survive, you've got to overcome a lot of obstacles, you've got to adjust on the car to get better and better, and I think that that's probably one of the things that has impressed me the most that we've been able to do seven times is really be in that position in a race that's very challenging just to get to the end because of the tight quarters. To be able to be in that position seven times is very impressive to me.
ED HINTON, TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS: This is for Steve and Jeff: Steve, just a few minutes ago Jeff was talking about maybe getting a little more aggressive on the racetrack. You seem to be by demeanor quite an intense and forceful personality, maybe a little bit different than Robby, who was very low key almost to the point of being laid back. Do you think that a crew chief can set sort of a tone and a rhythm for a race weekend and race that sort of carries over to the driver, that the whole team gets in that tone and rhythm?
And also, Jeff, if you think Steve's demeanor has rubbed off on you some.
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think there's no doubt that I'm probably a little more of an intense person than Robby, but as far as being the leader to the group, I think some of your demeanor and the decisions you make affect how the team goes about its business. One thing that I think Jeff and I have done well together is as we try to be really intense in the race but also understand how long the races are and what we need to do, and I feel that -- we've only been crew chief and driver now for 15 or so races, but I feel we've done a good job of putting ourselves in position to end a lot of these long races. That's the key to winning in this Series now is just like Jeff explained at Martinsville, every race now is two thirds survival and making it to the end and working for your track position. You can't really let your guard down because there's so many good teams and talented drivers that you have to be on top of your game everywhere you go.
JEFF GORDON: Just to follow up with that, I think that when I mentioned be more aggressive, it's because I'm looking at last year and what as a driver I could have done different or better at times to get us into the Chase or be in position to win more races, and I felt like there were some times when I could have been a little bit more aggressive. We've seen a lot of these young guys come into the sport and be more aggressive, and I think that you can learn something from that.
It doesn't mean you're more aggressive all the time; you still have to know when to be patient and when to be aggressive.
I think what Steve has brought to the table is he's really got the guys fired up. They're working together so well, they're building race cars, they're all pumped up and ready to go to each race with a chance to win. I want them to know that me as the driver, that I feel that same way, that I'm in there giving them everything that they're giving me, and that means that there's going to be times when I'm going to be more aggressive.
I think that that's something I'm trying to improve on, that maybe I missed some opportunities last year with that, and I don't want to miss out on those opportunities this year.
NORTH LATIN AMERICAN CHANNEL: Here's something of interest for Steve from the Latin American Channel. We're broadcasting the NEXTEL races and Busch down in all of Latin America. I want to know your thoughts on NASCAR expanding its reach over to a much larger audience, possibly bringing in new talent from other places. As you know, Busch is racing down in Mexico, so what are your thoughts on this?
JEFF GORDON: I think it's exciting. I think it's fantastic. I'm a big supporter of seeing our sport grow to a bigger fan base, even competitors coming into our sport from different parts of the world. I think our sport has a lot to offer, and it's exciting and it has been labeled as all-American primarily since it's American manufacturers, but I think that there's a lot of growth there within North America, whether it be Canada, Mexico or possibly even South America, and I think that it's great to see that there's an interest there. I hope that it can continue within our sport from crew members or people working within the teams or NASCAR or even with the sponsors all the way to drivers, as well.
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think I just really completely agree with what Jeff was saying. It excites me to think that a sport like ours can be more and more on a worldwide stage, and I think it's just showing how much the sport is growing. I agree with Jeff; I'm excited to have more talent and different talented drivers from other areas and crew members. The more international our sport becomes, the more it opens our eyes to be different, and it's helping our sport grow and move into the future.
DAVID NEWTON, NASCAR.COM: Last year some profanity was caught from an in-car radio. A, do you guys like the idea of an in-car broadcast being shown on live TV; and B, would you like to see a delay?
JEFF GORDON: I can give you an opinion on in-car. I have no problem if it's done live. The problem I have is that they usually record it and then play it back at a later time, and I have a big issue with that because it's taken out of context and then used and edited. I don't think that that is using it properly.
I think if they want to tape live broadcast video and then link it to live broadcast radio, that's fine. It should have delays because you've got to understand, everybody's intensity level is so high, the heat of the moment, and I don't care what sport you're in out there, you're going to come across moments when there's things that are said that aren't appropriate for minors.
Our sport is no different there. I feel like we do a really good job of being very family-oriented, but there are times when it's not appropriate. So I think they definitely need to have a delay on it, but I don't think that it should be recorded and played at a later time and edited.
STEVE LETARTE: The one thing I agree with Jeff is in my opinion our NASCAR audience has always had a great amount of role models and I feel we still do. If you put a mike on anyone in any sport, baseball, basketball, for the entire game there would be a lot of things said that would be inappropriate. I feel that's what people need to realize is when you have a driver's radio, that's in the heat of the moment, and why I think having it broadcasted is a great idea, to connect the fans to the drivers, at the same time having a delay just for safety and for the good of the sport, I think it's a great idea.
DAVID NEWTON, NASCAR.COM: Have either one of you guys, when they do that, do they come on and tell you you're going to be broadcast live?
JEFF GORDON: No, they have those rights and they can pretty much take it any time. They do come to us and ask us if they can talk to us, which is something that we've declined just because even though I think that it offers some more insight to the fans, it draws -- we have to draw a line there with the competition side of things, of our communication between Steve and myself and the focus that we have on trying to compete in the race and not get too caught up with trying to entertain.
DENISE MALOOF: Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it, and good luck on Sunday.

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