JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 AXALTA CHEVROLET SS met with media and discussed his 788 consecutive starts, how honored he was by the John Force ‘flames’ tribute paint-out on his Chevrolet Camaro SS NHRA Funny Car at Charlotte this weekend, how various people led him along the way in his career, the Chicago race track, and much more. Full Transcript:
TALK ABOUT HITTING THE MILESTONE OF TYING THE RECORD WITH RICKY RUDD FOR ALL-TIME CONSECUTIVE STARTS AT 788, AND WHAT THAT MEANS TO YOU
“I’m really focused on the Chase and this being the first race in the Chase, and that’s where our priorities are and where our focus is at, but what’s coming along with that is something that I’m very proud of. And, it’s something I’ve put a lot of effort into over the years is to stay healthy and competitive and it’s hard to believe that I’ve been in that car every single race since 1992. So, on Sunday, that’ll be something that will add to some already impressive stats that it wasn’t something I really ever focused on throughout my career; I just always focused on working hard and staying healthy and being as committed to the team, from a driver’s standpoint, as they have been to me; and now here we are at 788. It’s pretty amazing.”
WHO IS TOUGHER? YOU, OR RICKY RUDD OR TERRY LABONTE?
“Those guys are way tougher than me. I’ve never had to tape my eyelids open to make the race. The one thing about it is that this sport is safer today than it ever has been. But I think its a little bit more demanding in some ways, from how hard you have to push. The cars are gripping so much better and the G-forces that we’re pulling through the corners, in that sense, I think the physical fitness side of it you have to really work on. But when you think of those guys and the conditions of the cars, they didn’t have any kind of air conditioning. They dealt with some major injuries and fought through, just like Terry. Being my teammate there, I’ve seen him race with a broken hand or wrist or whatever it was, was pretty amazing. I’ve had some injuries along the way that I’ve had to fight through, so I have a taste of it; but certainly nothing like those guys. Those guys are way tougher.
“I almost got in a fight with Ricky Rudd one time. And, I’m quite certain I would have lost that fight, yeah. (laughter).”
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT? DO YOU REMEMBER?
“Oh, I know exactly what it was about. We were at Charlotte. He was no longer my teammate. And, I was trying to pass him. And I had a little difficulty passing him, so I did a big slide-job on him in the middle of (Turns) 3 and 4, and I don’t think he was happy about that. And he basically pushed me all the way down the straightaway and ended-up wrecking both of us by the time we got to Turn 1. And I showed my displeasure and he showed his displeasure. We had to get in the ambulance together to come back to the Infield Care Center. And we had many, many choice words. Nothing physical, but it got pretty heated.”
DID YOU GUYS EVER TALK IT OUT?
“Well, the funny part about that story is that I had just bought a house up at the lake and it wasn’t finished. It was still being built. And I was up there looking at the house and where it was at, at the time. And a car drove down the driveway; it was still just dirt. There was no pavement or anything. So, this car comes winding through the property at the front and I was just looking and thinking oh, I wonder who that is. And I walk up and the car stops right about the time that I realize it’s Ricky and his wife. And they were just out and about, looking at houses (laughs). And, he wanted to back-up, I could tell. He wanted to back-up fast (laughter). But, he didn’t and we kind of laughed about it and talked about the incident and both apologized and moved on.”
WHEN KEVIN HARVICK SAID YESTERDAY ABOUT THE GIBBS PEOPLE, WE’RE GOING TO POUND THEM INTO THE GROUND, A LOT OF DRIVERS THOUGHT THAT KIND OF TALK WOULD BE AT HOMESTEAD AND NOT AT CHICAGO. DOES THAT SURPRISE YOU THAT HARVICK IS KIND OF STARTING EARLY?
“He’s an instigator. I’m not surprised. I saw a few antics yesterday (laughs). The thing is, everybody has their way of going about it. You can just do all your talking on the race track, which, the thing is, Kevin is capable of doing that as well, but he likes to do a little bit more of that off the race track, as well. And it’s just Kevin’s personality. I think he does it in good fun, but he also knows that there are certain individuals out there that, that can affect them and maybe give him an edge. And so, he’s going to try to get every edge that he can get.”
DOES IT EVER WORK? AND DOES HE MAYBE THINK THERE ARE CERTAIN GIBBS DRIVERS THAT IT MIGHT WORK ON?
“Well, I don’t know. Only time will tell if it works. But, it wouldn’t work on me. I think that’s one of my strengths is just mentally blocking out things like that and just doing your job on the track. And I think most guys are like that, but there are a few that might be a little bit more sensitive to those kinds of things. It might stick in their head. The thing is, if there is one major competitor of his that it works on, then I think that’s a win for him. But, it can go the other way, too. And you get pounded in the ground and then all of a sudden you’re going to have to deal with those questions in the media. So, those guys are strong. They’re tough. He’s showing it again today and I don’t know, maybe he’s got something up his sleeve that nobody else knows about and is getting ready to pound all of us in the ground (laughs).”
HOW SURPRISED WERE YOU THAT JOHN FORCE IS DRIVING HIS FUNNY CAR IN A PAINT-OUT IN HONOR OF YOUR OLD FLAME PAINT SCHEME?
"I was shocked. That blew me away! I have always been a huge fan of John Force, and I went out to that track (ZMax Dragway at Charlotte Motor Speedway). Took my kids out there to watch the drag races. I was just so impressed with what they do, and the power in those cars.
"It (the John Force Jeff Gordon tribute) was kept a secret from me. I guess my office, my step Dad (John Bickford), Jon Edwards (PR and Communications) and a few others knew about it. It is one thing to see a track or a fan or somebody here within this garage area do something to pay tribute. But when it starts going outside of NASCAR and our sport, that certainly humbles you and makes you extremely appreciative of not only what I have done, but people that recognize it - especially when it is someone like John Force."
ARE YOU GOING TO GET THE BODY, AND IF SO, WHERE WOULD YOU PUT IT?
"First, I want to tell John I only want the flames to be on the paint, because I've seen him go up in a big ball of flames before this. So let's just hope it stays on the body with the paint. I don't know anything more than that. I am just so appreciative of him doing that. Just seeing it on the track is an honor."
AT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR CAREER, YOUR TIME WITH BILL DAVIS AND EVENTUALLY WITH RICK HENDRICK, COULD YOU EVER IMAGINE BACK THEN WHAT YOU’VE BECOME TODAY?
“No, never. I was having a conversation earlier about this and that’s been one of the greatest things about this year is reminiscing about how it all started. I’ve been able to reconnect with people that played a role along the way and significant moments that really changed my path or took it to the next level. Of course my step-dad (John Bickford) and my mom (Carol Bickford) have been there the whole way, so it’s been great interacting with them, as well, and talking about those times, because over the years, I can’t say that we always have. But when you start talking about hey, we’re going to invite this person to this race and that person to that race; I got to see Rollie Helmling at Indianapolis and that one really kick-started, in my opinion, when I drove that Midget the night before the 500 and won the race live on ESPN and everybody knows how popular Thursday Night Thunder was back then in those times. And that’s really what put my name out there to even get the opportunity to go NASCAR racing. And then of course the Hugh Connerty introduction at the Buck Baker Driving School, which led to Ray Evernham. One of the coolest things about that whole thing that people don’t know much about, and I loved seeing this at Darlington a couple of weeks ago, was Leo Jackson. Leo Jackson played a big role in that team and that car because of his connection with the (Phil and Linda) Barkdolls, that’s how that all came about. And of course that led to getting a phone call from Ford and going testing for Bill (Davis) and driving for him and ultimately leading to Hendrick Motorsports. Pretty cool stuff.”
THERE WAS A LOT OF CHATTER DURING THE TRUCK SERIES PRACTICE AND XFINITY SERIES PRACTICE ABOUT THE TRACK BEING A LOT ROUGHER. WAS IT SIMILAR FOR THE CUP DRIVERS AND HOW COULD IT PLAY INTO SUNDAY’S RACE?
“Yeah, the funny thing about it is that it seems like every year we go back to a track and we say how much rougher it is. The thing is, sometimes the track does get slightly rougher going through a winter, especially the harsh winters they have up here, but most of the time it’s the teams just trying to be more aggressive with the set-ups. And we’re getting more and more away from suspension and focusing more and more on aerodynamics. And so, the gain that you have aerodynamically with the downforce by making the car stiff in the platform of the car, getting closer to the race track and maximizing the downforce, makes the cars ride really rigid and recognize the bumps a lot more. But, yes. The bumps are significant. The one going into (Turn) 1 is there, and it will play a small role, but it’s the one in the middle of (Turns) 3 and 4. I’m assuming over the tunnel. To this day, I’ll never understand why we put tunnels in the middle of the corners, but it is what it is. I’m hoping my race track in Canada, if we ever get it done, will not have a tunnel in the corners. But, it always gives in those areas and creates bumps, which sometimes create a little bit more drama and excitement in the race as well.”
TODAY, A LOT OF TIMES KIDS HAVE TO BRING SPONSORS WITH THEM. WHEN YOU LOOK BACK AS A KID TRYING TO GET INTO NASCAR, WOULD YOU HAVE HAD THE SAME PROGRESS INTO THE SPORT? WOULD IT HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE, EVEN WITH YOUR TALENT, TO HAVE MADE IT TO THIS LEVEL?
“Well, Kyle Larson has done it. And I’d say his path was similar. I think he’s extremely talented and I love the fact that our sport is still recognizing talent, meaning that the car owners are giving opportunities and creating sponsorship or creating the opportunity to get sponsorship. When Chip Ganassi has to make a decision between Juan Pablo Montoya and his international appeal and his talent, or Kyle Larson; and Kyle Larson is in the car today, that just goes to show you that somebody’s talent really can thrive still today and I love that. I do worry about that. There are a lot of young talented kids out there. I think the NASCAR Next program is becoming a great program, as well. It’s really recognizing talent and it’s giving people opportunity to get behind the wheel when otherwise, without a sponsorship, they might not. And I think the teams are embracing that and realizing that still today, yeah it’s nice to have somebody that can bring money and pay the bills. And there’s sometimes, that rare instance, where they bring money and they have the talent to also get the job done behind the wheel. But, it’s nice to know that talent, by running up front and being more competitive, has the ability to probably bring in more sponsorship.”