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NASCAR Nextel Cup Series: Subway Fresh Fit 500

Stock Car Racing Topics:  Subway Fresh Fit 500

NASCAR Nextel Cup Series: Subway Fresh Fit 500

Jeff Gordon
Steve Letarte
April 21, 2007


JEFF GORDON: The whole weekend has just been a pleasure. It's been so much fun. I've been more fired up this year than I've ever been. It's been frustrating and disappointing what we haven't got the wins when I felt we've been capable of it. I told Stevie, I owed him one from last week, and, you know that, one got away from us. So that was pretty disappointing.
So, you know, to be able to come back and do it here at Phoenix, from the pole, to get 76, oh, man, I can go on and on with all of the things that are just fired up about with this win.
THE MODERATOR: We're also joined in here by tonight's winning crew chief, Steve Letarte. Talk about tonight's strategy and your view from the box.
STEVE LETARTE: The strategy, I wish I had planned that out. We just got real lucky, a real timely yellow fell and we were fortunate to put four tires on and our spotter, Shannon (ph) should get a lot of credit for that. He had to find the leader on the racetrack, and it's very hard to do under green flag conditions; and he found it and let us know we had enough time to put tires on. And once we put tires on, I knew we were good to go for track position.
Phoenix has always been a very finicky place for us. We are always good on one end and not the other, and we never seem to get the breaks at the end of the race even when we have the best car.
So to come here and to get a little lucky on a yellow feels really nice. It feels really good to win here.

Q. Getting 76 and behind Dale Earnhardt was no big deal and when the moment came you got the flag from Steve and made the victory lap, so in essence it actually was a big deal. Can you kind of talk about that?
JEFF GORDON: You know, the way we approach each race is to win. And so, you know, in the back of our minds, yeah, it was an important win and we're going to hold onto that flag for a long time.
Yeah, we wanted to do something cool for Dale and pay tribute to him. I had so much fun racing with him and I miss him a lot out there. To do something he has done in this sport is pretty overwhelming for anybody and it is for me. I can't believe that we've won 76 races, and, you know, it feels good to get back into victory lane and just to be able to hold that flag.
I was afraid, you know, some people might think we were trying to get the Earnhardt fans or think that we're, you know, saying we're as good as him, and that wasn't the case. You know, we just wanted to honor him. It felt really good that Junior came in and really accepted that that way.
It was a special moment, you know, and you know it's -- man, it's a special night. I don't really know how to put it into words. It really means the world to me to be able to do this at this point in my career, and, you know, to still be competitive out there; to be coming to the racetrack and driving the cars that I get the privilege to drive; it's a blast.
I knew that it was a matter of time that we were going to get that win, but it just seemed like it had been hanging over us for so long.
Yeah, in the back of our minds, it was important. But I didn't want to approach it as if that's what our goal was to just get to that number to tie Dale. It was a lot more than that even for us. It's just -- and maybe we knew that it was a lot more; we didn't want to put any more pressure on ourselves.

Q. For each of you after you look back at everything that was accomplished tonight, it started with your cars sitting on pit road on the first lap, and you had to change helmets, can you just talk about what happened there at the beginning?
JEFF GORDON: We've been having some radio issues and Steve and I are going to have a little sit-down with our guy. He does such an awesome job. He works in my seats and radios and all that stuff, but that's the second week that row that we've had a radio issue, or third week that row I think, and tonight it was a helmet. And maybe it's been the helmet the whole time and it finally just quit on it. But that stuff should be checked in the prerace and it wasn't. He says it was so, I don't know, we have to figure out what that t was.
But it certainly caused some -- and this is where Steve is, you know, I give him so much credit because when that call came to be made on pit road when that caution came out, he was calm and cool. At least he sounded pretty calm to me. He was a lot calmer than I was, I can tell you that. I was going to drive right through the pit, and luckily he made the call and he knew exactly what to do, and it was just awesome.
And that's exactly what he did on pit road when that radio issue happened. He looked at me, he said, "Calm down. Everything is fine. We're to the going anywhere. You know, we've got time. We're going to change the helmet if you want to change the helmet." And we found out the other helmet was working so I said, yeah, and I was trying to -- and he wanted to make sure every belt was put on, every hook, everything was secure and that we didn't do anything stupid on top of what had already happened.
You know, I give him a lot of credit for that. It was pretty awesome.

Q. In a way, once Tony had passed you, you kind of raced like Earnhardt there at the end to get lead back. You went between him and Martin Truex. Just talk about how satisfying it was to get in a side-by-side battle like that when you're going to tie a guy like Dale Earnhardt.
JEFF GORDON: I certainly wasn't thinking about all that at that moment. I just -- I was a little bit angry because I felt like we had -- again, the king gave me the car, gave me the position, gave me everything and here I was going to lose it on the racetrack and that was pretty disappointing to me because we've got such a good effort going right now. I wanted to get a win. I was hungry for it. I felt like we had an opportunity to get our first one here.
I'll be honest, Tony made a great call -- a great move. His car worked really good on the outside between 1 and 2. And Martin was being a pain in the butt; you know, I don't blame him for it. You know, he was balancing some guys for position. You know, once we got side-by-side and he started to fade, I didn't understand where he was racing the way he did. I had to race him pretty hard, shove him out of the way a little bit, and I think made him mad and Tony just stuck his nose in there and made a great move and he had me. I thought our night was done.
And luckily, I didn't give up on it. Drove in the next corner -- and I was getting through 1 and 2 on that set of tires really good, and Tony, I got right on him, looked like he got loose and I was able to get underneath him. Once I got underneath him, I just carried the momentum and carried him wide a little bit down three and our car up front was just awesome.
For 20 laps, we had the best car I think all night, and that was why I wanted to capitalize on it so much.

Q. To the best of my knowledge, after the race, there has not been any contact between America and Tony Stewart as far as radio, TV, press conferences. (Laughter) I want to know, has there been any contact between and you Tony Stewart?
JEFF GORDON: You mean on the racetrack?

Q. Anywhere. "Congratulations, nice race." High-fiving?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, he gave me a big thumbs up.

Q. On the track?

Q. But not like in victory lane.
JEFF GORDON: Well, I don't go to victory lane when he wins. (Laughter).

Q. He didn't come in here.
JEFF GORDON: Well, hey, what he does past that point -- you know, Tony's Tony. To me, if I was Tony and I felt like I was going to say something that I really didn't want to say, then I think I'd avoid you guys, too. (Laughter).
But I think that, you know, Tony has to handle things the best way he possibly can, and we all know that he gets wound up. You know, everybody has got their own different type of personality. And I'll be honest, when the heat of the moment's on and the adrenaline is flowing, you know, not all of us think straight, including myself. And if he wanted to avoid controversy by saying something he didn't want to say, then maybe that's why he didn't come in.

Q. I understand that but for a post-race press conference -- (inaudible.)
JEFF GORDON: Well, that's not my issue. You have to talk to him. I mean, I love what Tony brings to this sport, you know, because he's got a flair to it. He's a great, great race car driver. I don't want to drive him out of this sport. I think it would be a loss for him to not be here past whenever his contract is up.
You know, I want to see him having more fun and I understand what he means when he says that. You know, at this level of racing, it's tough, man. There's a lot more work that goes into it than people think. Yeah, we get paid very well, because that's the going rate. That's the market. If he's the guy who is one of the best and they want to pay him that much, he deserves it.
The problem with that is that comes with expectations and a lot of work, and when you win at this level, it's not like winning at a dirt track on a Saturday. It pays a lot more, too. But there's a lot of camaraderie among your guys on the team, the people that you hang out with, the other guys that are at the track, maybe be friends or other team members. You kind of just hang back, sit back, talk about the win.
And that's not the case here. You go straight to an interview, they tell you when to get out of the car; they tell when you to smile; when to hold up your finger; what hat to put on; you know, go to this interview; go to that interview. The last people I get to see are these guys and those are the ones I want to be with the most.
I've been saying that for years that victory lane, you know, is somewhat spoiled by that. But we wouldn't have this sport and what it is today if it wasn't for that.
So, I hear where Tony is coming from, you know, but I hope that he can understand like I do when I sit down and think about it that that's the case for anybody in that position.

Q. It seemed that at Bristol and Martinsville, you couldn't get your front, the nose, under the bumper in this Car of Tomorrow, but when you passed Tony for the lead, it seemed like you were able to push him a little bumper-to-bumper. Can you talk a little about that and are we finding that finally maybe there can be a little bit of the bump-and-run some day in the Car of Tomorrow?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I'll be honest with you; it was better than I thought it was going to be. I really thought that once you got out front, all you had to do was just mirror drive and there's no way that guy had a chance.
On new tires when the cars had grip, you know, some guys' cars handle better on new tires and some guys' cars handle better on old tires. I still believe being up front was the place to be. But I was able to get close enough to it, to Tony, to loosen them up and he was already loose at the beginning of the run. He needed to get a gap between him and the guy behind him earlier in the race and I could see that. So I kind of took advantage of that.
My car was real good on new tires, but I will say, it was better than I thought it was going to be; it really was. I'm not saying I'm sold on it yet. I think there's still a little bit more to do. I think we can make this car better.
But I give most of the credit to the team guys and the whole garage of working on this car and improving this -- from the first time I drove this car, this is like a different race car. The thing was horrible the first time I drove it, and you know -- I won't say what I said.
Since then, these guys have improved that car so much that they are making it feel a lot like what I was hoping for in a race car, this race car. You know, there are still some things that are different. I mean, I wore the brakes out on this car trying to get the slowdown trying to get into the corner but through the middle and off the corner wasn't bad. And behind other cars, I didn't feel like -- aero, it was there, but no more than in the past, and maybe even a little bit better than in the past. I think that's because we are a little bit slower through the corner.

Q. During this period, you had not won since Chicago last July, other than the Earnhardt part of it which obviously was a big factor, was there something in your mind about the fact that it seems like you've had a lot of shots at winning during that period and didn't get the win, and was that bothering you at all? You won a lot of races over the years, you haven't had many long stretches like this without a win.
JEFF GORDON: Oh, yeah, it bothered the heck out of me. As far as I'm concerned every time we have a car capable of winning, every time Steve and those guys put me in position to win, we need to win. And I don't like giving up wins.
And you know, plus, in the last couple of years, I haven't had many opportunities to win, so I really didn't like giving them up.
But I've had more opportunities to win so far in, what, how many races are we in, seven races into the season? Eight? I've had more opportunities to win already in eight races than I've had the last two years.
So, you know, I'm not as frustrated this year as I have been maybe, you know, in past years, because I know that we're bringing awesome race cars. We've got a great team. Everything is clicking and we're going to be in position to win races.
But, you know, my job as a driver is to get that -- when the opportunity is there, it's my job to finish it off. And these guys count on me just like I count on them to help us get there. And you know, I want to do my part every single time. When I don't, it's frustrating. Last week, I was very upset with myself.

Q. You said you wanted to make sure people took things the right way with the flag. I guess who did you kind of go to to get their blessing that that would be all right, and secondly, this sets you up for maybe passing Earnhardt next week at Talladega; are you concerned about what the reaction might be there?
JEFF GORDON: I better carry a flag there, too. They might not throw things at me. I think I might just carry the flag around for the whole race. (Laughter).
Well, I mean, obviously, you know, John Edwards and I -- I can't remember who all talked about it. It went back and forth when it first -- when somebody first came to me, and I can't remember who it was and said, hey, you know, if you get to 76, would you like to do this. And at first I said no. You know, I don't want people to take it the wrong way. I respected him so much that I didn't want it to disrespect him in any way.
But the more we talked about it, the more that we thought, no, no, it would be honoring him and it would be a good thing. So I don't remember; we all talked about it last year. It hasn't been talked about more a long time, I can tell you that.

Q. Did you talk about it with Earnhardt Junior --

Q. Just among yourselves?
JEFF GORDON: Just among ourselves. You know, you don't want to say, "Hey, guys, we're carrying this flag so that when we win the next race, we're going to put it out the window, do you mind?"
I think they would be like, "Hey, make sure that Gordon doesn't win because he's got this flag ready to go." You know, I didn't think that we had to take it that far.
And you know what, I may be wrong and John Edwards might be able to answer a little bit better because I think he may have talked to a few people -- oh, Beave (ph) talked with Junior? So the guy that handed me the flag, Aaron, he had actually seen Junior out and mentioned it to him and he said, "No, I think that would be cool." So I forgot. I forgot that we had talked to him about that. I hadn't personally, though.

Q. A lot of people over the years, including I'm sure some of your fans and some of the Earnhardt fans, all wanted a fierce rivalry to develop between you and Senior, and now you and Junior. That never has really happened. In fact, you seem to have extremely good relationships with both. Has the sport missed something not having you racing head-to-head, side-to-side every week with those guys and a really hot rivalry developing from it?
JEFF GORDON: It would probably spice things up a little bit more if Junior and I didn't like one another and crashed one another a couple times.
But I think it spices things up no matter what when we're battling with him. There's certain guys, you know, that kind of have that kind of aura about them, that the fans go, oohh, I don't think these guys like one another or whatever they perceive, like say, Stewart or Junior or maybe Harvick or stuff like that.
As long as the fans get fired up and excited about what's going on out there on the track, you know, I saw it last week at Texas when Junior and I were battling, I could see the reaction from the fans. They were loving it. They love it whenever he takes a lead no matter who it's from.
I will say that Senior and I, we did have a rivalry on the racetrack. We loved to beat one another. We battled hard on the track and he certainly didn't mind shoving me around. You know, I just think that he was very good at not carrying that off the racetrack, and because of the way he treated me off the racetrack. Then I kind understood that you know, where the boundaries were and felt pretty fortunate. And I think most guys do that. Most guys keep what's on the racetrack on the racetrack and don't get wound up with it off the racetrack.
Junior and I, it's a totally different situation. You know, I can remember him racing a late model Young at North Wilkesborough and talking to him about coming up through the ranks and stuff. There's just never been any of that on the racetrack. We've hung out as friends before away from the racetrack.
And, yeah, we know the reaction that the fans have, but unless we're at a racetrack where both of us are running good, we're just -- we have a lot of respect on the racetrack as I did for his dad. You know, it kind of ends there.

Q. You have greatly sort of -- inaudible -- comparison -- it's not a credit to you -- inaudible. The way this season is going, do you think that's all put behind you?
STEVE LETARTE: Well, I think Chad and I just are different personalities. I think each team has their louder personality and more reserved personality. I think between Jimmie and Chad, Chad is definitely the more outspoken person; it's just his personality.
Between Jeff and I, it's just Jeff. It's the characteristics of our personalities, and I think that's why they complement each other so well. I said -- I've said this to quite a few people; if I was Jimmie Johnson's crew chief we wouldn't win near as many races as they have won. And I think if Chad was Jeff's crew chief, I don't think they would have won as many races as Chad has won with Jimmie.
I think that's where Mr. Hendrick comes in. He's a wonderful leader of pairing people up that he feels will blossom together as a group, and that's kind of the toughest part of the sport you is can't see the guy in the face. You have to do everything over the radio which makes it very, very difficult to communicate.
Chad and I are great friends. We worked together in 1995 when we won the championship with Jeff. We're just different people. There's really no comparing us. I'm excited when they win, I'm happy for them because as much as everyone made such a big deal about setups at Martinsville, what the media doesn't understand is that's a 38-race -- that's a 38-race system. 38 weeks a year, Chad and I will sit in 10 another's motor homes and go three other's either notes and each other's setups piece-by-piece. There's no stone unturned between the two of us. And when we start the race, I mean, he knows I want to beat him as bad as the other 41 other guys out there. But from Monday to Saturday and even Sunday morning, you know, it's completely open book.

Q. Last year, actually the last two years, you've kind of talked about how if you never got the fifth championship, let alone seven, you were okay with that. Do you maybe want to start reconsidering after the way you've been going this year so far?
JEFF GORDON: I never said I didn't want it. I just said my career as far as stats are concerned, I never thought I would get one Cup win. So I'm way ahead of the game. You know, anything from this point on is just bonus.
But I think that may have been mistaken -- and I see that a lot, that people might take that as not being driven enough to want it more and not -- engine fires up, I get in that car, there's nobody more driven than me. There's nobody that wants it more. And when the car is right for my driving style, you know, we're going to get the most out of it.
And that's what Steve is bringing to the table right now. The thing I love about what he's doing is he's recognizing setups that it could be from Jimmie, it could be from Kyle, it could be from Casey Mears, whoever, that he knows what works for me and what doesn't work. He's in a great position. He's seen two other, you know, really good crew chiefs, greats in this sport work with me, side-by-side. And he's seen those guys, you know, what worked and what didn't work, and he's able to learn from that. And he knows me better than probably anybody because he's been there listening for so long with what goes on.
You know, right now, because of the type of race cars that we've got coming to the racetrack, it's got me extremely fired up and I've always -- I've always wanted to get that next championship. But it's just not what I use for motivation. I go week-to-week, and lap-to-lap. I'll probably always do that. I know that we've got what it takes to do it this year. I just hope we can keep this going with what we've got right now because it's awesome.

Q. Tony Stewart (spoke about) the unbelievable pressure to win and when I asked, where did the pressure come from, he said "from ourselves." Now, this is your first win this year, either you're not feeling the same pressure or you're covering it so --
JEFF GORDON: I won, Claire. (Laughter).

Q. So you're happier now, but have you been under that kind of pressure, that unbelievable stress he said, with the Car of Tomorrow, the testing?
JEFF GORDON: Like I said, Tony, you know, he has his personality and I have mine. We have different personalities.
It's just how you handle things and how you show things. You know, last -- I think I just hide my emotions a lot more. You know, when I'm frustrated, when I'm upset, I try to contain that or keep that for myself privately or keep it with the people I'm close to.
Yeah, I've been frustrated and yeah, I've felt the pressure. But again -- well, we don't -- just like Tony, Tony is not getting pressure from his sponsors; he's not getting pressure from Job Gibbs. He knows they want him to win. They want you to win every race, and the team as well. He's a great driver. He knows he's capable of winning and he wants to take advantage of every opportunity that he get to win, just like, you know, I do.
And so we just have different ways of showing it, that's all. But I think that we've -- I carry that pressure, as well. I just might have a little bit -- a little bit taller boiling point. I think for me to crack and really go out and say things that I wish I hadn't said, I think it takes a little bit more. He's got a short fuse; I've got a long fuse. They have their pluses and minuses.

Q. How tough would Denny had been to catch had he not gotten that penalty?
JEFF GORDON: He would have been strong. He would have been strong. I can't believe -- talk about Harvick. Harvick got out there and he came from way back and he was incredible. I don't know, for some reason, when he got into second, his car just wasn't as good and he fell back.
But Denny -- you know, between Denny, he and Tony, man, they had strong race cars. So yeah could have been tough.

Q. Finally what do you miss the most --
JEFF GORDON: Had I not hit the wall last week, it would have been tough for Kenseth and Burton, too.

Q. What finally, what do you miss the most about Dale Earnhardt?
JEFF GORDON: The things that bug me the most about just him running into you for no reason, coming up.

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