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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
June 11, 2008
THE MODERATOR: Welcome to this month's West Region NASCAR Sprint Cup teleconference. This is the sixth year we've been able to bring this monthly call, sponsored by Auto Club Speedway, Infineon Raceway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway
Today's guest is Jeff Gordon driver of the number 24 DuPont Chevrolet. He enters the race this week in Michigan 8th in points in poles. Next weekend, he will be in Sonoma for the Save Mart 350 at Infineon, and Jeff holds the track record in Sonoma for wins on a road course with five including three straight from 1998 to 2000.
Jeff, thanks so much for taking a few minutes for the members of the West Coast media today.
JEFF GORDON: My pleasure. And I'm looking forward to this weekend and looking forward to Sonoma, that's a special weekend for us. Obviously with our success up there in Sonoma, but also my daughter, Ella, is going to have her one-year birthday and we are going to celebrate up there, so we are really looking forward to it.
THE MODERATOR: Sounds like it's going to be a great weekend for you.
The raceway is celebrating its 20th anniversary of NASCAR Cup Racing, which seems hard to believe. How has racing in Sonoma changed over the years for you, and what are your most memorable moments?
JEFF GORDON: Well, the first time coming out there, my first experience on that road course in a Cup car was certainly an experience I'd like to put behind me.
You know, I think I was in the car wall and off the track, you know, more than I was on the track. But you know, we seemed to learn fast and really come geared up the next couple years and start to get ourselves in a position to start being competitive out there.
One of my fondest memories is my second or third year in Sonoma and I was running third to Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin. And watching those guys do battle, and of course that was the old configuration of the track.
So that's probably the biggest change is the configuration of the track, and I think the fans get to see more racing now with the configuration and the different challenges that the new track -- that come with that.
THE MODERATOR: From a personal standpoint, you mentioned your doubt area's birthday; and two years ago, wasn't it the place where you announced your engagement?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, Sonoma is a special place for me, obviously being from Vallejo and having a lot of family and friends, unfortunately with our hectic schedule I don't get to see often enough.
So for years, we have always done some type of an event on Saturday in the Napa valley and brought our friends and family together, as well as some of my teammates and other friends in racing.
Then two years ago like you mentioned, announced our engagement between Ingrid and myself and last year celebrated her (Ella's) birth. Unfortunately I had to leave New York to get to Sonoma shortly after she was born, but still very special, special weekend and now we get to celebrate with everybody together this coming weekend, or next weekend.
Q. Would you elaborate more on how you really progressed as far as you could go and as far as you could go on road courses? You were always a left-turn person before that.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I had a little bit of experience with go-karts but no shifting or anything like that. And in the go-karts when we did the road racing, did fairly well. Went to the IK Nationals (ph), I want to say it was in the early 80s in a go-kart and finished fourth overall, so that was a big deal.
And I had never driven a big car on a road course and even on all of the years I grew up in Vallejo and had never seen the Sonoma racetrack.
So the first time was an eye-opening experience and not the best, but I think the hard work that the team put in, I went to several different road racing schools from Skip Barber to Bob Bondurant and tried to hone my skills in turning right and shifting and downshifting and just there's a lot of heel-toe they teach at those schools and I never was big on heel-toe. So you still had to transfer what we do in the race car completely different from what you learned at the school.
But, it's still a great experience. I actually went to Skip Barber and Jim Russell at Sonoma, and that probably just helped me teach what the track was all about, and then from there it was all about the team just getting the transmission, the braking, and allowing me to just focus on the little areas of braking and turning in the apexes and where to find the speed.
Q. Certainly worked for you.
JEFF GORDON: They certainly have. We've had a lot of success there and it's been a lot of fun and hopefully we can continue that coming up.
Q. I want to know about the Car of Tomorrow, last year was the first time that you raced at Infineon and what were the differences, and what new things did you have to deal with with that?
JEFF GORDON: Well, a lot of it is just you can't carry the corner speed with this car that you could the old car. We're on bump stops in the front so the front suspension reacts quite a bit different, so you've got to be real careful with how you brake, and there's a lot of corners at Sonoma like on the front straightaway going up to turn one where you're breaking and turning at the same time, and this car, you really have to be careful about loading one corner right-front or left-front too abruptly under the braking zones.
In the straight braking zones, like into the final turn, I don't know if it's 11, or 12 or whichever it is, but it's fantastic. It really gets into that corner good. Of course you have that tight hairpin and the car really doesn't want to rotate through there. So you get a lot of wheel spin, just a lot less grip and I think you just have to be a little more patient with this car than you did with the old car.
Q. I interviewed Carl Edwards won after he took a Blue Angels ride, and I think Carl rides airplanes; are you a pilot?
JEFF GORDON: I'm not a pilot. Obviously do a lot of flying but not up in the cockpit. I enjoy my time trying to get work done or rest in the back of the plane, and I have flown with the blue angels, and I can honestly say that after that experience, it pretty much encouraged me even more to not be a pilot. (Laughing).
Q. Had an opposite effect?
JEFF GORDON: It did. It did. I think if I would ever want to fly anything, I would want to fly a helicopter because I think they are cool and they can land just about anywhere. But there's a lot of work that goes into it and especially nowadays, being a dad, just don't have the time to put in the training as well as the schooling that it takes to do it well.
Q. A lot of NASCAR guys fly, I know that, so you're not into that yet?
JEFF GORDON: No. I don't know if I ever will be. It's just one of those things. I enjoy traveling. I enjoy experiencing new places but as far as me being the one to fly to get us there, just haven't -- I haven't gotten the bug.
Q. That's one way to go fast.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah.
Q. Is fatherhood pretty much everything you expected it to be?
JEFF GORDON: I don't know if you really know what to expect. You know, I think that the whole thing is overwhelming from the moment that you see your first sonogram, I think that it's just an experience that you can't describe until you go through it, and then all of a sudden when the baby is born, you know, that emotion and that feeling that you get, responsibility and being proud and excited, you know, just there are not word that really describe it. And then you sort of get initiated into a club. It's an elite club and only people who are parents that can understand it and are a part of it, and it's very special. It's a lot of hard work.
I have a whole new appreciation for my parents and all of the parents that are out there because even the luxuries that I'm able to have, it is one of the toughest things. It's the toughest thing that I have ever been a part of, but at the same time, the most gratifying and exciting thing I've ever been a part of.
Q. How did Dale Senior feel about road course racing at Sonoma? I guess it took awhile for him to warm up to it. Is he a fan?
JEFF GORDON: The thing that stands out the most to me with Dale Senior at a load course is after he crashed, I think it was at Talladega, and we went to Watkins Glen and he sat on the pole. I think all of us were not only shocked that he came through this horrific crash and was able to be out there on the track but then he went out there and sat on the pole. I think it was a challenge to him.
I think while road racing was not what he was best at, I think that he was such a great race car driver that any time there was a challenge, that he had to improve on, at any type of track, and I think Sonoma was definitely one of those tracks. He pushed hard to make those improvements and to excel at it, and I think anything he put his mind to, he pretty much did excel at it.
Q. Do you think Dale Junior has that same attitude as far as being a challenge; he's getting a little better each year. Do you think he looks at it from the same standpoint?
JEFF GORDON: Absolutely. I sense the same thing with him. I think he feels like it not a natural thing that he's just naturally good at, but he wants to be good at it and he's working hard at it, and it's a total team effort. And I think that you know with our success, that we've had in the past, I think that gives him a little bit more confident and then he's working hard to hone his skills to bring that success along for himself, as well.
Q. Do you ever get used to being booed? How do you cope with that?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, I guess I have gotten adjusted to it. Certainly if I could go out and talk individually to every one of those fans that boos me and try to sway them, I would do it. But I also know that controversy and that rivalry among the fans has been a positive thing for me.
It been a positive thing for the sport. And I think it's sort of the same thing for Kyle. I think it's been a very positive thing for him, and you can't control how people react to you. You can't control whether they are booing or cheering and whether they are a fan or not. All you can do is control what you are doing out there on the racetrack and try to do your best.
You've got to give him credit for what he's doing out there on the racetrack and let whatever happens, the reaction you get off the track or from the fans sort of take care of itself.
Q. Kyle has been saying a lot lately, because he's asked a lot about this lately, about how he doesn't really care what people think about him. Isn't it human nature that you are going to care at some level?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I think that's just a way to try to take some of that pressure and heat off. I mean, everybody -- I've never met anybody that doesn't truly care about how people look at them or think of them. I think more so with your peers than strangers or people who you don't really know, but are following the sport.
I think that you want everybody to like you, but I think that by saying you don't care, it's probably not true, and I think over time, you know, one of the things that I can personally say through my experiences is that when I was younger and coming up in the sport, how to handle yourself through those types of situations is tough, because you're still trying to find out who you are, what you're about, what your real goals are, what matters most to you, and then you're going through these experiences that are just, you know, huge and you don't always know how to react, what to say, what not to say.
And it comes through time. I think all of us experience that through life. And I'm still experiencing it, but I'm sure he's going through a lot of that right now, as well.
Q. You said that even when you don't win, it's news. This is the third time you've gotten this far into a season without a win. Are you at all concerned, or no?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I'm concerned. We want to be competitive every single year. The good thing is that this is my 16th season in this sport, and I've been through a lot of great years and I've been through some down years.
You know, those down years, those are the toughest ones, and we've had tougher ones than this. I will say that this new car creates a lot of challenges that we're trying to overcome. The competition is obviously especially at Gibbs and Roush, they have really stepped it up from last year.
Now lately Evernham has really stepped it up. So we have got some work to do and we know that, and it's happening; from testing to being on our seven-post rig and everything we can do at Hendrick Motorsports, and with the 24 team specifically, doing everything that we can.
You know, it's not just one magical thing. It's a combination of a lot of things, and you know, I feel confident that we're going to get it. I just hope that it happens at the right time when we can start -- our momentum swing through the Chase or getting to the Chase and still pull off a championship.
Q. Can the Hendrick stable over the last half of the season or so kind of -- can you rebound to post numbers similar to what the team had last year?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I don't know about numbers like we had last year. I think the potential of doing what we did in the Chase is still possible. You know, right now, our first order of business is to make sure we're in the Chase.
Right now, I think that we're less focused with trying to win races than maybe the media and other people are caught up in. We are more realistic. We are more caught up in what do we have to do to make ourselves better, and it's one step at a time. It doesn't just happen overnight.
But you know, through a lot of hard work and testing and trying things, and some of it is at the track when you can't test and some of it is away from the track at other tracks, and sometimes you hit on things and it just start to add up and you starting to in a direction and you start to find things.
I think Kasey Kahne is a perfect example. They really weren't any better than us, if not worse than us, prior to Charlotte. And you know, they have hit on some things that have really allowed that team to take off. And I think we are capable of doing the same thing.
Q. You've had so many great races at Sonoma and the track is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Do you have a favorite Sonoma moment that you look back on?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, all of our wins have been special. There was one year that I was leading the race, my seat belts came undone, the caution flew, I went into the gravel pit or off the track and the caution fell and I was able to come to pit road, latch my belts back up. It was a hot day. I was exhausted. It was just one of those days where it seemed like everything was trying to go against us, and we still fought through and won the race. That was a spectacular day and win, and a huge moment for the team.
Q. That was about three years ago?
JEFF GORDON: No, I don't know what year that was. It was probably our third or fourth win out there, so several years ago.
Q. And Kyle has been having this fantastic season, and you know him very well; what are your views on Kyle's season? What's been the big difference for him?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, I think that his move to Gibbs came at a good time. I think that's a great organization. I think that they have really been performing well this year.
You know, he's clicked obviously with the team and the crew chief. He's a great driver, there's no doubt about that. And I think that they have done what you have to do to be competitive and win, and you know, that's what every team is out there trying to do, and sometimes it happens for you soon, and sometimes it takes time, and for those guys, you know, it's just come together quick and it's been a great year so far for him.
Q. You sort of partly answered my question a minute ago, but with regard to your season, you come off the high from being so close at Homestead and you run into a season where things are a lot more challenging. I know you've been frustrated with the car at times but even without the win, I think you still have six Top-5s or something like that. So for you personally, is it a case where you have to just sort of dig down deep and be a lot more patient and do your best to keep the frustration at bay, and particularly since you mentioned you've had worse seasons than this; so how do you deal with it mentally?
JEFF GORDON: The thing is, every weekend, like we went to -- obviously Texas is probably the low point of the season for us. We ran terrible. I lost control of the car. It was just a total disaster all weekend long. And when you go through those types of races, you look back at it and you try to figure, okay, what's the best we could have gotten out of it and how could we have improved and where are we missing something. And I do believe that Texas is not only my most challenging track; I believe it's one of most challenging tracks out there.
We go to some other tracks, and like Darlington, we were Top-5 or -6 car, we pulled off a Top-5 there, a third, but it was a distant third. So even on our good finishes -- Dover is another one a couple weeks ago. We finished fifth there. We were a Top-5 car but we were distant.
So even those moments are frustrating, it's great to get top fives and you need the points, and you need to get in the Chase and sometimes you're going to walk before you can run, but you know, when you're finishing fifth and you're not even leading laps or close to the leaders, it's frustrating.
We're just a very competitive organization, and I know how competitive I am, and we want to be a factor in the wins, as well as the championship. Right now, we're not, and you just have to -- exactly, be patient and work hard.
I think Steve Letarte is an awesome crew chief and doing a great job, and I think our team is one of the best teams out there. When we are out there and doing our pit stops and we are communicating and adjusting and getting through some of these tough weekends, I don't think any team out there could do a better job. And when we do get the cars working the way we want them to, which I still feel confident that we will, I feel like we are going to be one of the teams to beat.
Q. Even against that background, do you look at Sonoma as the kind of race where you can finally break through?
JEFF GORDON: I do feel like Sonoma is a track that we can be competitive at. It seems like typically in the past, Sonoma is one of those tracks where no matter what kind of season we're having, we can go out there and be competitive enough to win the race. Doesn't guarantee you are going to win the race, but at least you're going to be competitive. And I feel confident that we are going to be competitive this time as well.
But that didn't change what's happening at the mile-and-a-half tracks that we are struggling with. That doesn't turn that around. It just gives us an opportunity to hopefully pull off a great finish.
Q. You've mentioned "team" a couple of times, and just working on a story about the aspect of team. When you start out racing, you're pretty much on your own and trying to win, win hard and when you make it to this top level of NASCAR, you suddenly join a team. Is it a big adjustment for a driver? I know at certain races you can help each other and at certain race, you can't. But what was that like, just coming into NASCAR and suddenly finding yourself a member of a big team?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, that's something that's grown over time. When I joined Hendrick Motorsports, they were only a two-car team that went to a three-car team and a lot of people were like, that's crazy. You can't beat three cars.
And we had success and over time, we learned how to manage all of these different personalities, and teams and work together and it's still always an ongoing learning process about having to learn from it and grow and make it better, and I think Hendrick has done a great job with it and it's what continues to make us continue to be strong year after year.
I've always felt like as a race car driver, it was a team sport, because you're dealing with a piece of equipment that is built by individuals. I wasn't always as hand-on, certainly not with stock cars, back with the Midgets and Sprint cars I was a little bit more hands-on, but I never really was a guy in there building the cars from scratch. It was always a team effort.
So you know, to me, it's always been important of how your equipment performs out there. But now it's about not just your equipment, but learning from as many individuals around you as a team to gather information, to utilize their resources and testing and things they are learning to benefit yourself and vice versa.
Q. What can you attribute, if anything, to the differences in performance of the team members on the Hendricks team? It looks like Jimmie and Dale are the most successful. Why is it so different when you have basically the same equipment and you can share information?
JEFF GORDON: I think there are certain tracks that those guys have done well on and other tracks that we have and they haven't. I feel like Junior, started off the season strong and very consistent. Like at California, us and Jimmie, we were pretty spectacular there. And Junior was decent but he wasn't spectacular.
But then we have gone to other tracks and he's been better than I've been. With this new car, you're mainly looking at mile-and-a-halves. Every driver has a different feel, a different way they like to driver the car. So you can't just put one set up in that's working for one guy and it will work for everybody.
But still, we can share information. We can have our debriefs and all of the crew chiefs and the drivers and engineers, they talk about what's going on and you can apply certain things that those teams are doing, and you can still use it to benefit yourself.
But you know, unless all of the drivers drive exactly the same line, they apply the brakes and throttle the same way, turn the steering wheel exactly the same way, have the same feel in the steering wheel and in the seat; unless they have that, there's no way that all of the setups are going to be the same and you're not going to have all of the cars running the same speed.
Q. Well, prior to the new car, you seem to pretty much have a handle on the road courses with the car the Hendricks team had developed. Has it been more difficult to develop the new car, of course, everybody started from scratch on it; do you think you'll have an advantage with your road course experience in developing the new car to Infineon and the Glen?
JEFF GORDON: I think not as many things have changes for the road course with this new car as they have for the other tracks. So I think that we are able to apply a lot of what we have had in the past to the new car and still be pretty close. I will say that I felt like Tony Stewart was the best car on the road course this last year, and I felt like we were the second best. Even though Juan Pablo won the Sonoma race, I felt like Tony and myself were the best cars as far as speed. So just you've got to hit the strategy right and you've got to make sure you maintain that speed, and you always have to improve them.
I think that's one of the biggest things this year is our competitors have really stepped it up. While we were battling for a championship last year, our competitors were focused on this year and they got ahead of us. It doesn't take much to get that little bit of edge, and it takes a little time to find it from our end, and that's why we are in the position that we are in.
I look at even though my teammates have been better than us, I feel like they still haven't been capable of really competing for the wins like we should be, and being more dominant like we were last year.
So I feel like as a whole, we still have some work to do.
Q. It seems like a lot of guys are taking it more seriously now, what are your thoughts on the field as a whole getting better?
JEFF GORDON: Definitely. I think that people recognize that you can't throw out any race, every race is important and every point that you can gain is important.
I think that the championship and the Chase and every race has just gotten more and more competitive. I think that the intensity level has increased. The pressure from the team, the sponsors and the drivers put on themselves has increased.
So every race is important, and I think that there's not a team out there that I know that wants to hire a driver that says, oh, we'll do great everywhere until we go to the road courses and we'll pretty much give those up. You don't want to give up anything, anywhere.
So I think that's made everybody work harder from the team aspect and the driver aspect so that you can be competitive on the road courses. There were times when we were dominating out there and felt like we only had two or three guys we were going to have to deal with.
Now there's any number of guys that can win, and then we saw last year, you take a guy like Juan Pablo who is faster on the road courses and put the right pit strategy and fuel mileage and anybody truly can win this race, so it makes it very, very tough to have the same kind of success that we've had in the past.
Q. Is there anyone that you would identify as maybe an up and comer for this year?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, David Ragan has seemed to me like he's made the biggest improvements over the years, and I think that -- you know, I think that you've got some guys like Sam Hornish and Patrick Carpentier that could really stand out on the road courses.
But heck, shoot, who knows? It could be Dale Junior this year, who knows who is going to be competitive. I'm really looking forward to getting out there and finding out, though.
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