NASCAR Preseason Fan Festival
January 17, 2009
DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA
RAMSEY POSTON: We're now joined in the infield media center by driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon. Jeff, tell us a little bit about your off-season and how you're looking forward to 2009.
JEFF GORDON: I don't know what to do with all this time we've had. It's been great, been very relaxing, especially for me with Ella and not being able to spend as much time as I would have liked with them as a family during the season. It was amazing, the off-season, especially at the age that she's at now and just growing and changing and learning. We had a great, relaxing, fun Christmas and New Year's and been doing a little bit of work here and there for some of my sponsors in January, and now here we are getting a chance to see a bunch of fans. I think it's great that we're here.
Q. Could you reflect back on maybe the first time you came down here to run the Daytona 500 and what you sort of knew about that race and what it meant and how that's changed over the years?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, my very first memories of Daytona, I used to race sprint cars out at Volusia County back in the mid-80s, so we'd drive by the speedway on our way out there. I was just in awe of it. It never was even a reality that I'd be driving laps around that track or competing there or especially winning there. I was happy to be going to the dirt track, but I was like, wow, what an amazing facility. And going to Indianapolis and going by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was kind of that same kind of feeling that you have when you just see a place sprawling out of the ground that has all these grandstands, this incredible speedway with all the history.
But the first time I drove through the tunnel was to test here for Bill Davis in a Busch Car, Nationwide car, and it was -- to me it was an experience of a lifetime, because back then, the Cup cars, especially with the Ford, because they only had about three Fords that were in the series at that time, we were all together with the Cup cars during the Daytona preseason testing. Mark Martin and his relationship with Bill Davis, I actually -- that very first time I ever came here, I got the opportunity to drive Mark's Cup car here and made a few laps. I had never seen the place. I went out and made a few -- and it may have been the second day, I'm not sure, but I made a few laps in my car and got to where I was wide open. I'll never forget them saying, okay, you're going to go out there and you're just going to hold it wide open, and I was like, no way, that's not possible. I remember I got out there and about halfway through the lap, I was like, okay, it feels pretty good. I think I'm going to push it all the way to the floor now, and I was already there. I was like, oh, okay, this isn't so bad. And then I got the opportunity to drive Mark's Cup car, and that was just a thrill of a lifetime for me to be able to drive his car. I've looked up to him before I got in the series and even more so now over the years getting to know him, and I look forward to having him as a teammate.
I mean, those were my introductions to it. When we came down here in '93 for the first year in a Cup car, I mean, I knew Hendrick's stuff was strong on the restrictor plates, but I had no clue that we were going to come down here and have the kind of Speedweeks that we had, winning the 125 race and finishing fifth or whatever to Earnhardt that year. Like I say, every time I've come here for the first time, whether it was in a Nationwide car or whether it was in a Cup car, it was an experience of a lifetime.
Q. With this relatively low-key off-season, how much more fired up might you be to come to Speedweeks at Daytona to see what your team's got compared to everybody else?
JEFF GORDON: Well, the biggest reason that I'm really fired up about Daytona this year is without the testing, I felt like we had the best car here last July. I made a couple mistakes and cost us the race, but we had, I felt, great power and the best handling car, for sure, in the race.
Now, February is always a little bit different than July because the temperatures are a little bit different, track conditions are a little bit different. But with no changes and no testing, we've got a great package to be able to come down here, and I feel like over the off-season I visited our engine shop, and I'm really excited about some things that they've got going on there, too. I feel like we've gotten more power.
I'm really -- I think Daytona, we've got a great opportunity to come here and be very competitive and have a shot at winning another one.
Q. Other than the go-karts in South America, have you been in a race car since Homestead? And also, as a teammate and car owner, how would you rate Jimmie's prospects for winning a fourth straight title?
JEFF GORDON: I haven't been in anything other than that go-kart. That was quite an experience, but it's not going to help me out for the season. You know, I mean, it's one of those things where I've always felt like we -- our off-season was so short, so limited, that I always wish we had more time, and so now I'm getting a chance to experience that. It's great, but I would like to be on the track a little bit to just kind of work out some of the bugs. And some teams have, New Smyrna and tracks like that, but we haven't. So in February when we get here it will be the first for me.
How can you bet against the 48 team? You know, I think that they were just incredible last year because they didn't start out as the best car and the best team, and the way that they stepped up when it came time for the Chase was to me something that's scary for every other competitor out there. There's no doubt that they've got an excellent shot at doing four in a row, and they've got a lot of pressure on them, as well. But I think that there were teams out there that showed that they can compete with them like Carl in the 99. I always look at us as one of those teams that you just never know what we're capable of until that time comes. So I certainly don't count ourselves out of that, either.
Those guys are going to be tough to beat, definitely.
Q. You're four-time champion, you've won 81 times. This year you'll get to lead in your 20,000th lap. After last season in your quiet moments, do you have any thought that what's it going to take to get back, is maybe the sport getting ahead of me, any self-doubt in there at all, or are you saying it just didn't work out last year and we'll go after it this year?
JEFF GORDON: No matter what kind of season we have, have won 13 races or no races, you always look at what you can do to be better for the next season, and that's the way I'm looking at it this season is I'm not dwelling on the fact that we didn't win. I'm not sitting here saying we're not capable of winning. I think that we are. I felt like we had some races that got away from us last year that we could have won, but you've got to seize those moments and opportunities, especially as competitive as it is these days, and if you look at the guys that were winning last year, they weren't spreading the love around a whole lot. Other than those guys, they were pretty much dominating.
I think that for us, it's just about trying to -- I feel like we really hit on some things later in the year, but it was too late. So we have a good direction. I really believe Steve is the guy. I mean, he's an awesome crew chief, and I know he took a lot of criticism last year, but I believe in him, and we've made small improvements I feel like that were needed, and I'm doing everything I can to make sure that I play my role in getting us back to victory lane.
To me it's not even about getting back to victory lane. Yeah, I want to win races. I want to be competitive enough to win races. I want to be competitive enough to lead laps and competitive enough to go for the championship. That's really what it's all about, but I think that in order to do that you're going to win races along the way. I think we're very capable of doing that this year, and we're focused, we're working hard, and it's going to be interesting to see how the no-testing policy plays out, if it is an advantage for us or a disadvantage. It's going to be interesting for everybody.
But I believe in myself that I still have what it takes. Sometimes -- me and Rick Crawford flew here together, and we were talking about being in a series for long periods of time and how it's tough to adjust because we were talking about him in the Truck Series and cooled down, and any veteran that you talk to, if they're honest with you, they'll tell you that sometimes it takes a little longer to transition through new cars, new setups, new tires, and so last year was a little bit of an adjustment for me that I think I'm well prepared for this year but might have gotten a little behind on it last year.
Q. What does Mark Martin bring to the table that will help you, and why do you think he continues to fare better at this stage in his career than these other guys that have raced past their mid 40s?
JEFF GORDON: Because he's the most talented race car driver that there is. I mean, the guy is just a natural and he works hard at it, and he keeps himself in great shape. You know, he's just very disciplined and dedicated and driven, a very competitive guy, and you put him in top-notch equipment and there's just no telling what he's capable of doing.
I've always been a big fan of his, like I said, since the first time I ever sat in a stock car, or even before when I watched it on TV and watched him dominate in a Nationwide race at Dover one time, and I got to race against him in the Nationwide series and battle it out with him through some races, and he's just incredible. The guy can hang the car out there, he can run a really loose car, and I think his experience, his attitude and what he's capable of doing as a driver are all things that -- not just Hendrick Motorsports wants, a lot of teams. That's why he's gotten pretty much to call the shots on how he has been able to sort of come out of retirement and go do limited schedules or different things, because everybody knows that he brings a lot of experience and talent to their team that can help them get sponsors, can help the organization grow, can help everybody. It's all about communication, and the more information and valuable information that you have while you're trying to put these setups together and make your team better, you know, the better you're going to be in the long run.
So having Mark there, a fresh look on it, from our perspective, but yet experience and confidence that he has -- I mean, if you ever heard him describe a car, the guy is on it, and that's something that goes a long way.
Q. Being a celebrity I'm sure isn't always easy --
JEFF GORDON: Celebrity? Okay.
Q. In a recent interview, Clint Eastwood, another celebrity, said that --
JEFF GORDON: You're comparing me with Clint Eastwood? Man.
Q. Anyway, he said that celebrities should take their work seriously but not themselves seriously. Could you comment on that?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, I think that's a great comment. You know, I think that a lot of times we get very, very caught up in -- especially if people put you up on a pedestal. If I do something good and read all about it in the papers and on the internet or on TV, you know, if I start believing that is the case every day of my life, then I'm going to be in trouble. You know, you've got to read into the good and to the bad and just be real.
You know, I mean, I've gone through a lot of life lessons and racing has played such a big part in that, and it's interesting to me how I look at life, how I look at racing these days versus when I first got into it, and I try not to -- I'm a pretty serious person in general, but it's funny how I've loosened up about certain things and appreciate the life that I've had, the career that I have, the sponsors, the fans, the media, everything that it takes to come and do what I do.
Each year that goes by I think I try to step back and take into account just how fortunate I've been and all of us have been in this sport. I definitely think there's a lot into what Clint is saying there, and I'm certainly always going to look to somebody like him, a wiser man than me and more experience that has something good to offer. I'm going to take advantage of it.
Q. How good a job did Dale, Jr. and Tony, Jr., do with America with the new team last year, not only their performance but what they were able to contribute to sort of the whole pot of information at Hendrick?
JEFF GORDON: I think they did awesome. When you've got somebody that's the stature of Dale, Jr. and his popularity and expectations and people pulling at him as much as they are, you never really know what to expect, how easy or difficult they're going to be to work with week in and week out. But he was fantastic, very open, great at describing the car and the setups and knowledgeable. And Tony, Jr., impressed the heck out of all of us, as well, how well put together he is at organizing the team and dealing with Jr. and being able to put him in his place when he needs to and being a real crew chief. Just like Steve Letarte, it's tough to be a crew chief for a four-time champion, it's tough to be a crew chief for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. You've got a lot of fans and media and everybody listening in on what it takes. I think those guys did a great job gelling with Hendrick. They didn't come in trying to reinvent things. They want to blend in and be a part of Hendrick and take advantage of the resources that we have but also know their individuality. I was very impressed with what they did. I know that they weren't as satisfied towards the end of the season. They started off pretty consistent and strong, and I think that when you see the 48 team kind of turn things around the way they did, and even we did, as well, just not as impressive as them, and they weren't able to kind of have some of the good fortune and have some things improve for themselves, I think that they were a little disappointed in that.
But from our end, as far as the 24 team, and from the Hendrick Motorsports side, I felt like they did a fantastic job. I look for great things to come from them this year after getting all of that sort of off their shoulders.
Q. At what point in your career did you -- did success make you start thinking about branching out, be it team ownership, creating the Jeff Gordon brand, and I had asked this question of Jimmie about how much success now has made him think about becoming his own brand?
JEFF GORDON: Sure. I mean, there was just a point where when -- I mean, in '94 when I won the Brickyard 400, life changed for me as a race car driver, and I think at that point we started thinking, looking at things a little bit different, and people like Dale Earnhardt, Senior started looking at me a little bit different. In '95 he sort of took me under his wing, and then our groups of licensing started working closer together, and of course the whole die cast market sort of started going nuts.
So, you know, I was a very good listener to Dale of things that he did, getting -- he pretty much controlled and owned his own rights. He was trademarked, and he controlled a lot of licensing for his team and his car, and he was an influence on me trying to do the same things. Of course I always thought he was crazy when he wanted to go own his own team, so I didn't necessarily follow that part, but I pretty much -- everything that he did, I looked up to him and thought that -- there was a couple things. To own the team, and he had all this property. He liked to go out and hang out with the deer, and of course he liked to hunt and fish, too, and those are things, oh, I don't care anything about those things. But these other things, the boating and airplane and owning the rights and how to become -- I don't know what the word is, but to be this icon that he was in our sport from the stats of what he's accomplished on the track to what he's accomplished off the track was a huge motivation for me. And he was fortunate enough to pretty much offer me advice towards all those things, and sometimes not even when I asked, which was pretty rare for Dale. You had to ask the right questions usually.
So those were all things that motivated me, and now here I am, and I have ownership in a team and I -- I love property, and I actually went hunting last year with my stepfather, and I love to go fishing. It's kind of crazy. Maybe that's just getting older. But I look back now on those days, those conversations with Dale, and it puts a big smile on my face because now I feel like I've really followed along some of the footsteps that he was saying, oh, you're going to want to do this one day, don't worry, you're going to want to do this, and I told him he was full of it. But he was right.
And then Rick Hendrick, I mean, Rick Hendrick is just such an amazing businessman as well as just a great person. He's been a great friend to me, and so that was an influence.
But I don't think anybody was a bigger influence than my stepfather. My stepfather is driven, motivated. It doesn't matter what subject it is, he knows how to learn about everything. So when it's the business of racing or sponsorships or licensing or branding, I trust -- I don't trust anybody like I trust him. You know, he's the one that got me where I am today, and he's still the one that runs my business.
There was a time when I thought I knew more than him, like a lot of sons, and I was like, I can do it without him. And then I realized that that's not the case. So if it weren't for him, I certainly would not have the motivation and the -- and put myself into some of the positions that I have.
Q. What were you hunting?
JEFF GORDON: I was hunting elk in Missouri.
Q. You were talking earlier about gelling. How has Mark Martin gelled in with Hendricks racing, and what advice have you given each other, if any?
JEFF GORDON: Well, over the years, lots of advice, but I can't think of anything necessarily specific as it relates to him coming to Hendrick. You know, I mean, there's no bit of information that you need to give to Mark Martin. I mean, he's just an awesome race car driver, and just having him at Hendrick, I think he's excited, we're all excited. You know, I mean, to me, he's gelled extremely well because he's easy-going when it comes to things like that. When he makes a decision to do something, he's completely committed and dedicated to it, and he comes in and just makes everybody feel good about it.
And I didn't doubt that one bit. I knew that that would happen. And that's why I pushed so hard -- pushed him so hard as well as others to try to make that happen. And I'm excited that it has, and I'm looking forward to working with him and learning from him and hopefully making myself better because I'm teammates with Mark.
Q. What are you guys doing with the testing ban in place? What are you guys doing differently maybe off the track that you haven't done in years past to prepare for the coming racing season? And are you guys utilizing any of the smaller tracks in the area that aren't NASCAR sanctioned?
JEFF GORDON: We the 24 team have not. Right now what you've got to do is you've got to take advantage of trying to get a Goodyear tire test because those are actually on the tracks that we're racing on, and you hope that you get invited to do that, which the 5, Mark Martin, did in December in Vegas along with I think Brian Vickers and Carl Edwards and maybe a couple others. So you've got that, but like I say, I have not been on the track. Our team did go to the proving grounds out in Arizona with David Green driving my car, so that was some restrictor plate speed tests that could help you a little bit for Daytona, mainly engine tuning, and then other than that, it's just been all seven-post computer simulation, a little bit of wind tunnel, and just sitting there taking advantage of the time that you have to really think about things that worked, things that didn't work last season, and really analyzing those setups in the spring and shock and sway bar combinations.
You know, it just is that -- before we always were so busy preparing for the next test that you don't really get to think about things in depth the way I feel like we have this year. Even though it looks slow and you go in the shop and it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot going on, there's a lot of people in rooms with engineers and computers that are thinking and doing a lot of work and a lot of work happening in the engine department, as well.
We've definitely taken advantage of this time and feel like we're well prepared even though we haven't been on the track.
RAMSEY POSTON: Jeff, thank you for your time.
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