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February 16, 2006

Jeff Gordon

Rick Hendrick

Steve Letarte

THE MODERATOR: We're joined by the champion of the second duel, driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon, his crew chief Steve Letarte, and team owner Rick Hendrick.
Jeff, if you'll talk about your run out there this afternoon.
JEFF GORDON: Obviously, a really good one. You know, lost the lead there early. You know, I didn't want to lose the lead there, obviously I wanted to keep it if we could throughout the whole race. But it was great for us to get behind other cars and see what the car did in traffic because this is a test session for us.
My teammate Kyle made some great moves, got up there, I was able to get in behind him, just ride basically until we got there, feel the car out till we came to the pit stops. You know, my guys made a great pit stop, got us out first. From that point on, it was just about protecting the lead and feeling the car out, what it was like out front. Car drove great.
There at the end, it got pretty interesting with those guys that came in and took tires. I thought, you know, staying out was a great call by Steve. Luckily we had Kyle, our teammate, again back behind us. That probably saved us from some of those guys ganging up on us.
THE MODERATOR: Steve, talk about how the crew did today.
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think the car was prepared really well. Everyone at Hendrick has done a spectacular job with our Speedway program. We've had a lot of speed since we've been here. The main focus of the day was to work on handling. I think the temperature helped a little bit with that. But I think it showed out there. The 5 had a great car. We also had a great car. I was really proud of the pit crew. That's an area we really tried to focus on this winter. To see them perform like this during the race was real exciting. Can't wait for Sunday.
THE MODERATOR: Rick, you had the top two finishers in this second duel. Your thoughts about that?
RICK HENDRICK: It was a good race. It's good when you got two cars that finish like that. You know, both cars ran well. Kyle got shuffled back and came back. He had a slip through his pits and cost him some time in his pit stops. To see him work that well and run that competitively, feel good about Sunday.
THE MODERATOR: Let's open it up for questions.
Q. Jeff, you're the defending 500 champion. You qualified second. You won this race. Are you the guy to beat on Sunday?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I don't know how you can just pick one guy. You know, this is restrictor plate racing. There's strong cars out here. I felt like the 38 was really strong in that first race. You know, I know that Tony and Junior and Jimmie and those guys who weren't in our race are going to be strong among a lot of other guys.
I definitely think we're one of the guys, I think with our track record here at Daytona. With the performance that we've got going for us already this week, you know, I'd like to think that we're one of the favorites. But whether we're the guy to beat or not, we'll find out in the closing laps of the 500.
Q. Jeff, last year you won the race that had to go green, white checkered. It seems like it's gotten to the point with this package you show up at Talladega or Daytona, it's like inevitable all the races are going to finish green white checkered. Both did today. Is it a simple matter that the packages are so tight that in the closing laps, somebody is going to get into somebody?
JEFF GORDON: Well, you know, obviously as the laps wind down, yeah, I think you got a point there. When it's so close and it's so tough to make passes, you're going to have guys get more and more desperate. Especially today, there were people that had -- whether they were going to start the 500 or not start the 500 on the line. That's a lot of pressure. It gets intense toward the end of the race.
So guys, you know, get more desperate and start making riskier moves. That's what's going to cause accidents. But I got to say, by having those no bump zones or whatever we want to call them, I think we saw a heck of a lot less crashes, big crashes, than what we could have seen.
I think that the racing was still good out there, but yet it was so much calmer. I'm basing it off of what I watched in the first race and what I saw in my mirror in the second race. Even being up there leading, knowing that, you know, somebody just didn't drive in the corner, and a way to pass is just drive in the back of you. I think that's going to make for a lot cleaner racing in the future on these types of tracks.
You're still going to see accidents, you always will, especially towards the closing laps of any race.
Q. Jeff, could you tell me your thoughts on this qualifying procedure, using the twins, versus the one that was in place a couple years ago.
JEFF GORDON: Well, I personally, and I think, you know, Steve would probably second this, that we like the fact that we got to make a pit stop now. Of course, since they made the fuel tanks smaller, I guess we'd probably be pitting anyway.
I think just being able to have the opportunity to make a pit stop and get your pit crew in sync, bring the whole total team effort into it, I like it better. You know, just going out there and running flat out with the same set of tires through a whole run, I think that you see, you know, in the end of a run, lap 15 to 25 or 30, you know, the cars get spread out, you don't see as much passing. I think this is more exciting for the fans, a better indication for the teams of what we have for Sunday.
Q. Jeff, I'm referring more towards the guys not racing their way in so much now as they used to have to with so many spots given by owner points, whereas last year there was more of a race to get into the 500.
JEFF GORDON: You know, you have to ask somebody else that. I would say guys -- there were a lot of cars here, I mean, almost 60 cars were here. There's a lot of guys that are still going home. As far as I'm concerned, there are still guys that have a lot on the line to gain or to lose.
I don't know. We weren't in that position. But we weren't in that position because we qualified in the front row. Had we not qualified on the front row, I can tell you, I would have been fighting out there to the last lap to get the best finish that I could for the 500 because we're all here, you know, to be in the 500 and to win the 500. There's a lot of different races going on out there. I think there's a lot on the line for a lot of guys.
I don't think it's really changed the intensity of it.
Q. Do you think today's race, your victory, sends a message to people who thought you might have slipped a bit after last year, which obviously you haven't?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I think anybody that feels like we slipped on the restrictor plate tracks haven't seen restrictor plate racing for the last couple years. I mean, I think that no matter what our seasons are like, what's happening with our team, we always seem to be pretty steady at restrictor plate tracks and at short tracks or road courses.
What I do like is just to see positive things happening. I think that says a lot and sends a message, you know, to us about the chemistry, the way the team's gelling. Like Steve said, to see the pit crew have a great stop like that, I think that says a lot right there. Because of the effort that was put in to make the pit crew better, we made a lot of changes within the organization. But our restrictor plate stuff has always been strong. I don't think it was a big surprise to us after testing that we were going to come down here and be a top five or top 10 car for qualifying, and thought we could be a threat for the 150s and the 500.
But having the total team together, that really does mean a lot. I think we carried some momentum for last year. I think we've definitely improved, and it's great to feel that energy happening right now. But, you know, again, I want to see that happening when we leave here and we're in California, we're in Vegas, we're in Texas. That's going to be the real indicators of where we're really at.
Q. You talked about yourself, kind of like a vindication, the confidence and momentum going into this season, doing well both in this race as well as over the weekend. How about for guys like Sadler and Earnhardt, what can this performance do for them going into the season?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I think everybody wants to get the season started off, you know, with something positive, to carry momentum out of here. You know, last year, we won three out of the first nine races. I think some of that was the momentum we carried out of Daytona. We were riding high for a very long time. I think it overshadowed some of the areas we were weak. So that momentum can carry you for a while.
It doesn't mean that you're going to make the Chase or win the championship obviously. You know, you got to take all that you can get any weekend that's positive and roll with it and keep it going and use it for your team to work together and build confidence and hope that you can carry that momentum.
You know, it's good for anybody. Doesn't matter who it is.
Q. A year ago when you won this race, you said that you liked being under the radar in the week leading up to it. You've kind of emerged as the favorite this week. I don't know if you saw in the recent media pole, NASCAR media selected you as the pre-season championship favorite. Do you like being back into the headlines now this season, especially when you were out of the spotlight last year or would you like to be under the radar?
JEFF GORDON: You guys just like being gutsy and going outside of the box and surprising everybody, that's all that is (smiling).
Yeah, I thought we were going under the radar until you start hearing that. I don't think any of us want to be under the radar right here or after the 150. We definitely didn't want to come out of here finishing 15th or coming in and not even finishing the race. We wanted to come out here with a win.
But as far as it goes for the championship, it's not that we want to be under the radar, we just want to be able to focus on our program, on our people, on what we have to do to be as strong as we can as a team to compete for wins, compete for championships, and build that together without there being too many outside distractions. If we ever say we want to go under the radar, that's what we're trying to do. Because by the results of that are hopefully that eventually some point in the season, you're a big blob on the radar screen and everybody is gunning for you. That's obviously the ultimate goal.
We can't take one race and one qualifying run and all of a sudden say, "Here we are. We're the guys to beat." We know, you know, it's got to happen week in and week out. We hope that we're going to build on that every weekend and just get better and better and be a championship contender when it's all said and done by the end of the year.
Q. Could you just talk a little bit about the Petty team, whether they're really contenders this year. They finished fifth and sixth in this race. They have your former crew chief over there helping them out.
JEFF GORDON: I think it's great for them. I think they definitely have had some positive changes happen over the off-season from Robbie to Bobby Labonte, Todd Parrott. Obviously, they're pulling from outside their organization some new people in, you know, old people. I think they've got, you know, some things building in the right direction for them.
I think that's fantastic. I think all of us are big Petty Enterprises fans, there's not anybody out there not pulling for those guys. I saw in the back of my mirror those guys dicing it up, Bobby and Kyle making some great runs. You got to be happy for them.
I'll always be a big Robbie Loomis fan. I've always been a friend and a fan of Bobby Labonte and Kyle Petty. I think we're all excited to see that happening.
Q. Can you talk about some of the reasons why you think you've run so strong on the restrictor plate courses the last couple years, what kind of confidence you take into those races because of the recent history?
JEFF GORDON: I know exactly why. It's because these two guys sitting next to me, Rick Hendrick who provides all the tools we need, the people, resources, all the money, engineering and everything that we put in to building strong race cars, strong engines, a great foundation for race teams to build on.
And then, you know, you have crew chiefs like Steve, and other guys that have been in our organization for many years that have built their way up through the organization and have gotten to the top, to the crew chief job, have learned from their experiences of being there, knowing how to utilize those tools, and the people that are around them, build great race cars and a great race team.
It's pretty obvious to me. I've said for the last 14 years that the best decision I ever made in my career was, you know, sitting down with Rick Hendrick and signing that contract to go drive the No. 24 car. It wasn't a difficult decision when you go over there and see that organization. They've got the best of the best. If you're lacking in any one area, we're going to go to work to try to figure it out and get better.
I do like the restrictor plate tracks. Ever since '93 when I came down here in the Cup car, we had success. When you build on it, probably the thing that's changed the least amount over the years, you know, we hear about big springs, big sway bars, shocks, all those things. In any one area, an area where experience is probably more important than anything, it's the restrictor plate tracks because there's not been a lot of those changes and things that have adapted into restrictor plate racing.
So it's allowed me just to learn every single race every year and just try to get better with the drafting and utilize the great cars that I have.
Q. Rick, speaking of former crew chiefs, Ray Evernham decided to have triplets this year by adding Scott Riggs to the program. They're going home. How surprised are you by that?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I think any time you come down here and race, I've been in that situation before, where you don't have points, I think someone mentioned a few minutes ago, as an owner, do you like being able to lock into more positions with the top, you know, 35 or whatever.
Absolutely, it feels more comfortable to be here. Anything can happen when you come down here with a new team. Scott Riggs, you know, you know Ray has put as good equipment under him as he had in his shop. But things can happen. That's the danger of coming down here with no points and having to qualify on speed, then race your way in. It can happen to anybody.
Q. Steve, looking ahead at the intermediate tracks, in the cars have you found anything that you think will improve over last season and can you explain it in such a way that I'd be able to understand it?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think last year, you know, towards the final 10, we definitely showed improvements in Atlanta and Homestead. The biggest goal for our race team is we've changed some personnel. We have a new Monte-Carlo SS and some other things that have changed. Our goals at Las Vegas and California upcoming intermediate events is to really work on the whole program and not just focus on the car.
In my opinion, the way to win a championship, the way to be successful, is you got to be really good in every area, not great in any specific one. That's kind of what we're going to work on.
As far as a specific thing in the car that we've found, I don't know if we found it yet. We found some more comfort with some aerodynamics that everybody has heard about. Some of the changes we made there. We're going to hopefully carry that into the new Chevrolet. As of now, I don't think there's one key success either way.
Q. Steve, Red Sox, Yankees fan, just curious?
STEVE LETARTE: Red Sox. Red Sox.
Q. Is being the crew chief of this 24 team a little like managing the Red Sox?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I mean, I don't really know. I don't manage a baseball team, I wouldn't know.
The one beauty of managing a team or being a crew chief of a team is the depth of the organization. I'm sure it's the same way in baseball. The Yankees, the Red Sox, those organizations have been successful for years. Mr. Hendrick has built such an organization that I only go out and do just my part. There's so many people at the company that make it happen, the beginning of the year, all through the year.
As long as we keep going in that direction, which I know we are, put the right people in the right places, I don't think any one person can really tear down an organization or make a difference in an organization. I think it's a group effort. I hope that will show on Sunday.
Q. Steve, you are looking now towards a Daytona 500. You came into this race, you were already secured of a spot. What kind of conversations, pump-ups did you have with the team? How good is your car going into the race this weekend?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, to start off, I think we have a good car. Like Jeff and Rick mentioned, our Speedway programs have been really, really strong for a long time at Hendrick. That eases a crew chief's mind coming down here. We know we have good motors and good bodies. We only really have to just work on the detail and we should be decent.
As far as pumping up the team, we reorganized a little personnel on the team. I'm excited with the changes we've made. I try not to pump 'em up, especially for Daytona, we're down here for a week and a half. We try to let their performance and let them work out the bugs. It's really an extended schedule. We try to just work out some of the finer details so when we get into the two- and three-day schedule during the year, we'll be as efficient as possible.
Q. Jeff, Lance McGrew said you were helping them with the superspeedway program. With the 24 team, are you seeing any benefits? Pooling all the resources maybe a little more, is there anything you guys have benefited from?
JEFF GORDON: I think Steve could probably answer that better than I could. I know that we've got all four teams, drivers, teams on the whole, we've got both shops now in place, located next to one another. We've got 5, 25 in their shop, 24 and 48 right next to them. I know I've seen a difference in the way everybody has worked together. I think Steve being there on a day-to-day basis could probably answer that better than I could.
Q. Jeff, most of this week you've been in front. I'm wondering if on Sunday you get shuffled to the back, which of course could easily happen to you or everybody else, do you have a sense of how the car will pull forward?
JEFF GORDON: Well, that's why we practice. You know, obviously when we're out there for the race, you don't want to put yourself in that position just in case you get in trouble or you can't get your way back to the front. In practice, we try to put ourselves in that position and see what it does. One of the things I think all of us have been working on, most cars and drivers I've talked to, have heard about, they're all pushing in traffic.
I got shuffled back there about second or third one time. Every step of the way, every car that you get shuffled back, the way the air moves around the car, gets more drastic, and the changes happen more and more.
We don't want to get in that position in the race on Sunday, but we want to be prepared for it in case it does. You can't build a car or set up a car so that it's great in traffic and 15th or 20th and expect it to drive good when you get to the front. You want to build a car that's good in the first five, then work with it on pit stops or different things with the crew and the crew chief, you know, throughout the race.
We don't expect to be leading every single lap. There's only one that we really want to lead, but you got to be in position to do it. We're going to work over the next couple days on the little things that we learned today and the day before and through the Bud shootout and make it that much better for Sunday.
Q. Mr. Hendrick, did the morning feel or the day leading up to today's races feel different for you because, as you were saying a bit ago, it's just more comfortable knowing all of your cars are in the show? Was your outlook different today? Less nervous, et cetera?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, absolutely. When you know you're here and it's just a matter of the position you're in, Jeff and I talked to Kyle before the second race, and we were talking about the fact that we had two good cars. Jeff knew he was going to start on the front row, we'd like to bring him back and not have any problems. I've been in that situation we were talking about, that Ray was in today. It is a very uncomfortable feeling. I think it takes a lot of pressure off to come to Daytona. You got sponsors that want to see their cars in the race. If you're running all year, it's tough to see a car that's been there every single week get knocked out by a car that's showing up for just one race.
It is a lot easier, and I think it's a good program.
THE MODERATOR: Gentlemen, thank you so much. Good luck on Sunday.

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