NASCAR Media Conference
September 6, 2005
DENISE MALOOF: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the NASCAR NEXTEL teleconference. First, a little bit of housekeeping. This week's NEXTEL Wake-Up Call will be from 10:45 until 11:15 a.m. Friday at the infield media center at Richmond International Raceway. The drivers who will attend the wake-up call this week is being confirmed as we speak. Perhaps I will have some updated information for you at the end of the call. We will play it by ear and see if we do have that information. Today we're joined by four-time NASCAR Nextel Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon who's got his work cut out for him this weekend at Richmond. He's had two career victories there and certainly a third on Saturday night is his priority at the moment. Jeff is just 30 points out of 10th place, and with this week's event being race No. 26 on the season and the cutoff mark to make the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, Jeff's main focus will be getting into the top 10. A quick reminder for those of you who need the review, the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series top 10, any driver within 400 points of the leader following Saturday night's Chevy Rock'n Roll 400 will make the Chase field. Jeff, you have experienced so much in your career, particularly pressure situations, where does this situation rank for you?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, it ranks right up there with going for the championship last year, you know, '97 when we were battling for the championship with Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett. It's intense pressure going into one single race, and you'll remember last year, seeing what all those guys that were battling to get into the top 10 were going through, saw what Jeremy Mayfield pulled off. I mean, we're kind of in that same situation where, you know, we're not in the best position, but anything is possible, especially on a short track like Richmond. We tested really well there. So, I mean, I feel like we're going to have a good, solid effort, but the way things have been going for us lately, you know, there's just no way to predict it. We just got to go out there and give it everything we got.
DENISE MALOOF: Does Jeremy's victory in the situation last year, making the top 10, does that give you some added incentive there?
JEFF GORDON: Oh, yeah, definitely. You know, when you see that much on the line, and you see how much pressure there is, someone stepping up like that and pull off a win like that, it's encouraging, it's exciting. I mean, it was great for I think the sport and this new points system. It was fantastic. I know there's going to be a lot of focus around that this weekend. You know, we've been in pressure situations before, so for whatever reason things have gone the way they've gone this year. I know there is a reason. Who knows. We might find out why on Sunday if it was meant to be or not meant to be.
DENISE MALOOF: We'll take questions.
Q. In a situation like this, where you have so much that is in your hands that you can do and that the team can do, yet it's dependent on what other cars can do that's out of your control, how do you emotionally handle that?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I think all you can focus on is what you do have control of. We've got to go out there and put the best race car on the racetrack throughout the whole race, pit stops and strategy. You know, we really are going to have to be as on top of our game this weekend as we've ever been. You know, certainly we're capable of that, I know that we are. We haven't shown that this year, so I'm hoping that when it is all on the line that we do step it up. I know the team is capable of doing that. You can't really focus on the other guys because they're going to do what they're going to do and you've got to do your job. Wherever the positions end up being, that's where you're going to end up, whether you're going to be in the Chase or not. You know, obviously with what Mayfield did last year, you know, went out and I think he led the most laps, if he didn't, he won the race, and did what he needed to do, didn't matter what the other guys did. You know, that's the competition we're in. We're racing Newman and McMurray, I feel like. But there are other things that might happen, you know, good or bad. We just got to go out there and put the best race together we can.
Q. Seems like your most recent pattern rather than just necessarily bad luck has been race cars that may qualify pretty good, then you start the race, they seem to turn sour really quickly, get worse, have to battle your way back. Who bears responsibility for that and how do you fix it?
JEFF GORDON: We all do. It's all of our responsibility. As a driver, my responsibility is to give information to the team about the car and what it's doing, how to make it better, how to start the race, you know, the way we should. That responsibility is also on Robbie and the guys working on the cars, all of our engineers and everybody that we gather information from. You know, there's no way to point fingers at any one person. It's a group effort whether you win the race or finish dead last. It's been frustrating, no doubt about it. I really felt as confident about a race car and a race going into Sunday night's race than I ever have, and actually dropped the green flag. I passed a couple cars, and the car felt fantastic. You know, 10 laps in the race, the car just -- 15, however many it was, the car went completely to the loose side and we struggled for a good part. Then we got the car tight and fought our way back up through there a little bit, then got too tight. We should have come in when we had the chance to get tires. I didn't think the car was as tight as it was. You know, it just ended up killing us and taking us all the way to the back basically. We finished 21st. You can't put the blame on any one person. It's a group (inaudible).
Q. After Sunday's race, Rick Hendrick said something to the effect that it may not matter that much whether you make the Chase because it doesn't seem like you're going to be able to make that run and go for the championship even if you do make it. Do you agree with that?
JEFF GORDON: I do. You know, you're always going to be optimistic that you get in the Chase and maybe things start to go your way, you pull something together. So we certainly want to be in the Chase to give that effort and, you know, take that chance. But the way we've been this year, honestly if we perform this weekend like we have the last few, we don't belong in the Chase anyway. You know, all we're going to do is go out there and finish 10th in the points and go on the stage. It would be a disappointing year no matter what. Right now the way I look at it is starting this weekend through the end of the season, it's all about us getting our issues sorted out on the tracks that we haven't run good at, and then when we do have good runs, we've got to make sure we finish out the run the way -- if we're competitive, we need to finish competitively. We just haven't shown that. We need to get some spark in things really for next year regardless of where we end up this weekend.
Q. Do you expect Robbie Loomis to be your crew chief next year?
JEFF GORDON: Well, we talked before this season even started about Robbie's future, what he wanted to do. If it's up to me, yeah, I'd love to have him as my crew chief. Robbie, you know, with his mom and some of the illnesses she's gone through, he's trying to decide right now what his plans are. It has nothing to do with our performance this year. I believe a hundred percent in Robbie Loomis and his abilities. When we're on, there's nobody better. Because of our lack of performance this year, I really don't think Robbie should be put to blame for that. It has nothing to do with whether he's my crew chief next year or not. You know, it has nothing to do with the performance that we've had this year.
Q. You and Jimmie Johnson have been struggling a little bit lately while your teammates Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers have been surging. If the teams have a common denominator it seems like it's Brian Whitesell, the team manager who left the 24/48 to go to the 5/25 last year. Do you think your team is still adapting and maybe feeling the effects of Brian's departure, as big a part of the organizing the 24/48 as he was?
JEFF GORDON: The way I look at it, I remember when those conversations were going on about Brian Whitesell. It had a lot to do with when we built the 24/48 team, Brian was sort of the interim crew chief there for a while, the reason why I wanted to take him out of being the crew chief is because I saw how great his skills were at organization, really being in a manager's role of a group. Obviously, the 24/48 teams excelled because of that. When the 5 and 25 started to join forces and become one team under -- two teams under one roof, you know, I was the first one to say, "Hey, you know, I think that Brian would be perfect for that position," recognizing that we might have to make some adjustments with our teams to compensate for that. I think in some ways his role was more significant than even we realized. You know, I think that it's been great to see those teams do as well as they have. I mean, I'm in a little bit different situation than most drivers. I have not only a passion for our team, but for the entire Hendrick organization. So I want to see the entire organization do well. But I do feel like, you know, our performance has dropped off. I don't know if it's because of Brian or if it's just a role that he played that we haven't been able to replace. We're looking into that right now, what kind of areas we might be lacking in. If Brian had a skill or a knowledge in that area, how we replace that. Happy for him, but it definitely has affected us in some ways. Hard to really put our finger on what exactly it's been that's contributed to that.
Q. Is Brian's greatest asset that he does keep the team on top of stuff like getting the cars prepared correctly and being prepared when you get to the track for everything?
JEFF GORDON: If you go all the way back, when we built the 48 team, I think one of the reasons why we were so good in 2001 is because we had an overabundance of people working on our team because we were planning for 2002 with the 48 team. I mean, we had the shop built, we basically had all these people building race cars, working on my cars. I mean, we had more people than what we knew what to do with. As a matter of fact, our budget was through the roof that year because it was like one team paying for twice the amount of people. I think there's a lot to be said about that because we were very well-prepared. Then when we started the 48 team up, we were still in pretty good shape because we were well-prepared to bring that team on board. The teams kept driving and doing well. I think over the years we've slowly but surely sort of lost people, whether it be to other areas of Hendrick Motorsports where maybe they were better utilized. I think just the masses of people has been depleted, and I think it's taken away a little bit of our being well, well prepared or being able to just think about things that you weren't typically thinking about. I think that's where Brian is so good. He had free rein to really go into so many different areas, where the crew chiefs were going in one direction, he could throw another idea in there and say, "Hey, have you guys thought about this?" That type of a person is what's really important to a team. I think, even though we feel like we have somebody there to do some of those things, maybe they haven't done quite what we had hoped.
Q. Whether you're in the Chase or not, how do you prepare physically for the grind of pushing through those last 10 races?
JEFF GORDON: Well, you know, I feel like you get into a rhythm. I think what happens, the only thing that changes that grind is the amount of testing that you do. If you're running all over the country racing and testing, that can really wear down on the team, and you got to find ways to keep those guys rested, keep 'em, including yourself, in a position to get away from the hustle and bustle and the grind and be fresh when you get to the racetrack. That to me is the toughest part. The last 10 races, I mean, we're all so used to going to the racetrack, going through the schedule, so I don't think that's too bad, other than the pressure as it starts to intensify as the season winds down. If you're in that championship hunt, then you got to make sure that your guys are even fresher than normal and you're not working them too hard. I felt like we did a little bit of that last year. We saved so many of our tests till this last 10, and between the tests and the races, we really were I felt like drained or a little bit overworked all the way till the end of the season.
Q. You said maybe you'll find a spark for next year. Is the spark what is missing? Ray Evernham earlier today was complimenting you and said when it comes down to the clinch, he described you as a money player, when given the ball at the clinch, you're very, very good.
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, I appreciate Ray saying that. We've had some great moments over the years between me and Ray and Robbie, the team I'm with now. You know, certainly that has gone our way in the past where it really comes down to it when it counts, whether it be a Daytona 500 or a Brickyard 400 or a championship or anything like that. I mean, I feel like we've been in that position to take advantage of it and step up when it was that time. You know, when I say "a spark," I mean, I don't think it's any big secret with our performances this year, we could use a spark in many different areas, whether it be better performance on the mile-and-a-half, two-mile racetracks or whether it be just trying to get something to go our way and not run over a piece of debris on the track and cause tires to blow or fenders to crush in. I mean, when I say "a spark," we just need a spark of some positive things, you know, to happen for us, to really turn the season around and really give us something to look forward to for the off-season and next season.
Q. If you think that a negative side-effect of this Chase might be if you missed it by one point or a hundred points, that the drivers view the season as a failure if you don't make it?
JEFF GORDON: Well, in the past if I didn't make the top 10 in points, I'd look at it as a failure, too. The only difference is I'd have 10 more races to work our way into that top 10. To be honest, with the expectations that are on our race team, it seems like anything less than maybe a top three or four in points is a disappointment for us. Our team, through our performances over the past, have put ourselves in a position to have higher expectations. But I think it depends on the team. There are certain teams out there that, you know, being close to the Chase and not quite making it in may be a huge improvement over the year before, it may be something very positive for them. For us, you know, we had a shot at the championship last year. To be anywhere but in that hunt for the championship is going to be a disappointment for us.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about the mood at the shop. There were such high spirits going into "The Drive For Five" and all that. What is the mood in the shop these days?
JEFF GORDON: You know what, our guys are amazing. I mean, through everything that we've been through, highs and lows over all the years, these guys know how to put races behind them and focus on the next one. You know, I think that the attitude is really good considering where we're at and things that have gone on. We tested at Richmond a couple weeks ago, had a great test. We got a brand-new car for Richmond. I think the attitude of our guys is that we're going to go to Richmond, we're going to make this Chase. I'm very fortunate to have a group of guys like that because I don't think there's too many teams that would be in our position that can handle themselves as well as my guys do.
Q. Do you feel like this is among, if not the biggest kind of challenge or obstacle you've had to chase in going for this championship, this sort of pressure of getting to the point of being able to go for the championship?
JEFF GORDON: Definitely. Definitely. I mean, the Chase has created a whole different aspect of pressure and how you look at the season. You know, on one side of it, I look at it, how exciting it is and great that it is. The fact that we're 12th in points, still have a shot mathematically at the championship. You know, it actually blows me away that basically if we get in the top 10, we still have a shot at it. You know, in the past, I mean, I can't tell you how disappointed I would be at this moment right now and have really nothing to look forward to other than planning for next year. Right now, I'm excited, looking forward to this weekend because I know that we're still in it, we're not out of it yet, we're going to fight all the way till that checkered flag waves, hope we're in it and try to turn things around and go for that championship, or at least get up as high in points as we possibly can. You know, the Chase has changed things drastically. It's also added a lot of pressure because, you know, where in the past the pressure really right now would be lying on those top five guys battling for the championship, right now those guys are kind of on Easy Street. I mean, I saw Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart this past weekend, and the guys are just kicked back, relaxing, looking forward to getting to New Hampshire. Just total opposite when you talk to the guys that are battling to get in the Chase. I think it's exciting for the sport. But at the same time it's definitely changed things for those guys that are back there. I love those challenges, but it's definitely heightened the challenges. Probably one of the biggest challenges that I've ever -- again, I compare it to '97 and then also last year when we were actually going for the championship. I feel like this challenge compares to that a lot.
Q. You've talked about the expectations that you have on your team, and every time we're going to sit here and talk, it's "The Drive For Five." If you win a fifth, it's going to be going for a six-pack, then whatever he next one, something about seven. It's always going to be that push, push, push for the next championship because of what you've done in the past. Do you find satisfaction in a year where you don't win a championship or is that the only thing that really I guess you get a satisfaction out of?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, I get satisfaction out of when we perform up to our full potential. The thing is that when we're fulfilling our full potential, we're usually winning races and championships. I think at our organization, because of our past history, we believe in ourselves enough and have enough confidence in ourselves to know that we should be out there competing at a very high level every single weekend, we should be up there battling for wins or top fives, just building on that. You know, you got to walk before you can run. You got to get top fives and top tens consistently before you start winning, or you win and that brings on more winning. And right now we're nowhere even close to that. It's definitely an adjustment for us and something that is only in my mind going to make us stronger, because you have to go through times like this in order to really get a greater appreciation and respect for how competitive our series is, how we're going to make ourselves better. If we didn't have the group and organization we have at Hendrick Motorsports, then I definitely would be worried and concerned. But because of our organization, because of our past history, how this is only going to be a great lesson for us, I only look at it as being a positive.
Q. How much do you want to know where McMurray, Newman are on the racetrack this weekend, or anybody else you might consider competition to get into the Chase, or will it be too distracting? How do you feel about that?
JEFF GORDON: Well, it's no different than this past weekend or last couple weekends where, you know, the first half of the race you got to run your race, you got to get yourself in position, and you're fighting your own battling. You don't need to worry about other competitors at that point. When it gets down to the last couple pit stops and runs and you're battling with those guys, yeah, I might ask or they might tell me where those guys are. This past weekend I saw where the 12 car was. At that time I saw us inching closer and closer to him. I knew he was a guy that I really wanted to work on. Kenseth was in a different league. Felt like he was up front battling for the win and wasn't even concerned about him. McMurray was another one. Then Jarrett and Sadler, you know, were certainty on my mind. I didn't really need anybody to say anything to me this past weekend. I could kind of see for myself. I mean, there was a great moment this past weekend when I got by Newman. I knew McMurray was further back. We were working our way towards the front. I mean, I was like, this is exactly what we need to do. I was very, very excited and proud about our efforts up to that point. Then it all went south. Once it went south, it didn't matter where those guys were. It was more, how do we fix our car, where is the caution, please give me a caution because we're in trouble (laughter). You know, this weekend, who knows, it could go something like that. If we're up there battling the top five or ten, those guys are coming or ahead of us and we need to chase or push harder, then, yeah, I know Robbie will mention to me about that. But I think we really try to focus on our own program, our own team, get the best position we can no matter what the other guys are doing.
Q. One of the biggest concerns people raise about the Chase is the effect on sponsors of drivers who aren't in. I don't imagine Dupont is going to kick you to the curb. But have you heard from them at all, to they put any extra pressure on you to make it?
JEFF GORDON: No, not at all. If anything, it's the exact opposite. They're extremely supportive. I mean, like right now they're getting a ton of publicity because the focus is on the guys that are battling for the Chase. As a matter of fact, Chad Holliday, CEO of Dupont, talked to Rick Hendrick and said, "Hey, you know, we've gone through years where business is tough, and we can't seem to do anything right. We know that we need support, so we're giving you guys support. We recognize how great your organization is. We're with you for the long haul." If anything, it's the exact opposite for us. It's certainly not the position that they want to be in, it's not the position we want to be in, but there's no talks or thoughts or anything about any action they would take if we're not in the top 10.
Q. Is it easier right now on a driver's mind to be 9th and 10th in points and barely hanging on or 11th and 12th with a real shot to grab one of those positions? Who has more pressure on them?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, I always think it's more pressure when you're chasing than it is when you're in the position and you've got to maintain that position. I mean, I would much rather be 30 points up on the guy behind me and have to go perform. I mean, you know you're going to perform. You got to step it up. But you also know you just got to keep that guy in sight. Where for me, I've got to finish quite a few positions ahead of 10th and 11th in points right now. To me, that's a lot more pressure.
Q. The season opened to so much promise. Came out of the Daytona with a big win. Picked up a couple more early. This seemed like a pretty solid race team early. Looking back at that, does that make this situation now, talking about you making the Chase, does it make it more puzzling or frustrating for you to look back on how good this team was early?
JEFF GORDON: Definitely. Definitely does. I mean, I still know we're a great team. It's just, you know, circumstances, whether it be bad luck, blown motors, cut tires, then add on top of that some bad runs. I mean, we have not performed on the mile-and-a-half racetracks at all. I throw in Michigan and California, into that mix, as well. Other than Charlotte, we've not performed at all on those racetracks. That's the most puzzling thing to me. Now, you go to Watkins Glen and you cut a left front tire, break a transmission, you blow an engine, I mean, those types of things are going to happen. You really can't do much about that. I've always just tried, and the team has always tried, to stay in control of the things that we can control, and the other things, you know, you got to try to work through 'em and hope they turn around. As far as the team itself being strong, you know, they're still very strong. It's just we're not showing it right now. Whether it be we're at a mile-and-a-half racetrack or we just have some misfortune come our way.
DENISE MALOOF: I know you are busy, Jeff, have things to do. I want to thank you for joining us today and good luck on Saturday.
JEFF GORDON: Thank you very much. We're looking forward to it. Certainly going to be an interesting weekend for us and a lot of other guys. I know a lot of interest is going to be there. I didn't want to be in this position, but now I'm here, we're going to make the most of it.
DENISE MALOOF: Sounds good. Best of luck. We will see there. A quick announcement. Ryan Newman will be one of the guests for the wake-up call in the infield media center in Richmond on Friday. That begins at 10:45 a.m. Thanks, everybody, for your partition participation this week. We will see you next week.
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