JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 3M CHEVROLET SS, met with members of the media at Darlington Raceway to discuss his last Southern 500 as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, making the Chase, the low downforce package and many other topics. Full Transcript:
WHILE MATHEMATICALLY IT LOOKS LIKE YOU SHOULD MAKE THE CHASE HOW BIG A DEAL WOULD IT BE IF YOU ACTUALLY CLINCHED A SPOT THIS WEEKEND?
“That would be huge. We definitely feel pressure and it’s a little bit stressful right now being on the bubble. I felt like we were in a pretty comfortable position about a month ago. We have just had some misfortunes. I feel like we have performed well enough to securely be in by points. I can’t say we have performed well enough to be real confident coming in here that we are going to be one of the cars to beat. But, I will follow that up also with the amount of hard work that Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and the team, everyone at Hendricks Motorsports has been putting in the effort for this weekend especially, but going forward as well. I’m pretty happy with the car. I think we’ve got a shot at doing that. No matter what, we realize it’s important for us to execute really well this weekend to put a great result out there on the track to get those points we need to go to Richmond and be a little more comfortable anyway. Other than a win this weekend, Richmond is going to be stressful, but the good news is we have dealt with it before.”
WHAT WERE YOUR IMPRESSIONS WHEN YOU FIRST CAME INTO THIS PLACE AND SAW THE TRACK?
“This is one of those tracks, sort of like Bristol, where when you hear about the track there is more of people trying to scare you and put this fear in you of ‘oh man Darlington, boy that is a tough track. You run right up next to the wall, man that place is going to get your attention, the Darlington stripe.’ So, you come into it going ‘oh man I’ve got to watch myself here.’ Then you go out there and you either like it or you don’t. I loved it right away. I loved running up near the fence. I think had I not raced at places like Salem and Winchester in the midgets and the sprint cars this track would have probably been a little bit more intimidating. It fit my style, our cars were good. I really enjoyed, right from the beginning, racing at this track. I think it was really more of what people were saying about it that stuck out in my mind prior to me coming here than when I actually got a chance to race here.”
THE FIRST TIME YOU SLAPPED THE WALL IT WAS OKAY?
“I don’t remember the first time I slapped it. I can remember some moments when I got into it that I feel like cost me the race or almost cost me the Winston million when we won that. I can certainly remember those, but the first time I got into it, it didn’t stand out to me. I feel like one of the reasons we have been so successful here is the lack of the Darlington stripe on my car when the races are over. I was actually talking to Jeff Gluck (USA Today reporter) about this earlier when I was being interviewed with him. For me, one of the reasons I think I excelled at this track – you don’t come here – at least back with the old surface and the cars with less downforce in them, even less than what we have this weekend.
“You didn’t attack this track. It wasn’t about being aggressive. It was about being patient. It was about finesse. It was about not overdriving it and having a car in one piece at the end of the day. And usually the ones that had the fenders on it were the ones that were most competitive at the end of the day. I feel like that is one of the things that I have done really well throughout my career. And, it’s also one of the reasons why I haven’t been as competitive in the last 10 years because that is not the way you do it today. These days you are aggressive from the time they drop the green. The cars have tons of downforce, the tires don’t fall off and you just go for it. This weekend, I think it’s going to go back a little bit to the old school way of Darlington and I hope that suits my style and what we have as a race team.”
WHAT WOULD IT MEAN IF YOU DIDN’T MAKE THE CHASE IN THIS LAST YEAR? WHAT WOULD THOSE LAST 10 RACES BE LIKE FOR YOU?
“It would be unfortunate for sure. All I’ve wanted this year is to end my career by being competitive. As competitive as we were last year, it would be pretty disappointing if we didn’t make it. I feel like we have been fairly competitive this year. I can’t say that the reason we are in the position we are in right now is just because we haven’t run well enough. We have just had some things that haven’t gone our way. But, we also haven’t performed up to par with what we expected to do this year. I want to be in the Chase. We are going to fight hard to be in the Chase and I think it would be a great way to end my career. But, at the same time and I mentioned this in Bristol, nothing is going to take away from what has happened this year off the track. Things like this every weekend the recognition from the fans, the media, the track owners and promoters and people that are a part of this sport have been so amazing to me that nothing is going to take away from that. I’m not going to let one year define my entire career. But, certainly at the same time we are motivated by this being my final year and I know my team is as well to end this on a positive note.”
YOU DIDN’T LIKE THE PACKAGE THAT THEY’VE RACED FOR MOST OF THIS YEAR. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE ONE WE HAVE THIS WEEKEND? IS IT GOING TO SUIT YOUR STYLE MORE?
“It’s much better, there’s no doubt about it. It’s much better. I still can’t help but reminisce about my earlier years here with a more abrasive track and a tire that just had tremendous grip for about one and a half laps, and then tremendous fall-off. We still don’t have that. This tire is pretty hard in comparison to that. And I don’t think you’re really going to be worrying about wearing tires out this weekend, but there is some fall-off. There’s no doubt the grip is down. So, trying to find the balance of the cars seems to be pretty tricky. The cars are freer in, tighter in the middle, and free off, which is kind of like of what we fought at Kentucky. But, I liked it there and so far I’m enjoying it here.”
YOU TALKED ABOUT AGGRESSIVENESS. HOW FINE A LINE IS THERE BETWEEN AGGRESSIVENESS AND BRAVERY IN MAKING A MOVE THAT SOME DRIVERS HAVE MADE THAT WASN’T SO SMART?
“Oh, I’ve seen a lot of those here especially. And they all can happen in Turn 1. In Turn 1, there’s not enough room really for two cars to go through there side-by-side. Yet, we line-up on restarts and original starts side-by-side. So, track position becomes so important. And that’s the other thing is there was a time where you didn’t worry about track position. If somebody wanted to go fast and push the limits of the car and the tires, you were happy to see them do that. Man yeah, go do that, because I’m going to be passing you in about 15 laps or less. And that’s just not the case today. So it creates more aggressiveness, more bravery, more bold moves, that I’m actually surprised doesn’t cause more accidents than it does. Again, that’s the product of how the cars are sticking to the race track these days, and the quality of the drivers. So, I don’t know. With this package, you might see a little more of that. I think the cars are going to be edgy, especially on those restarts and should make for a great race weekend.”
I’VE HEARD THE DEBATE THAT ALL THE HOOPLA SURROUNDING YOUR LAST FULL-TIME SEASON IS WHAT HAS MADE IT VERY DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO WIN A RACE SO FAR THIS YEAR. HAS THAT AFFECTED ANYTHING? WOULD IT BE FAIR TO SAY THAT ALL THIS ATTENTION ON YOUR TEAM HAS BEEN TOUGH?
“Yeah, and I appreciate your honesty and I know you’re connected to the fans in a big way with your show and you hear a lot of those things and I see it on Twitter, too. But, no. Honestly, I’ve had so many distractions over the years. I’ve had far more distractions than I’ve had even this year, and have performed well. I feel like there have definitely been some distractions this year that maybe would have affected me, but I feel like I’ve addressed them. You can’t help when a wheel comes loose or you have some kind of an issue that’s out of your hands. I feel like, the times when I didn’t step-up and perform well enough, we didn’t get the most out of that day; but I feel like I’ve been very focused, really. Even at Bristol, I was having a fantastic race at Bristol. I was very happy, even though we didn’t qualify well. And that’s been another thing. We just haven’t been qualifying well this year. And we can’t quite put our finger on that, which is one thing we did very well last year.
“So, I think when I look at certain races this year, I feel like there have been races where I’ve performed very well. And I feel like there have been ones that I haven’t performed as well as I would have liked. But, overall, if I had to put my finger on where we’ve been missing it, it’s not because of distractions.”
THE CHARLOTTE RACE IS COMING UP. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MEMORIES OF THAT TRACK ASIDE FROM THE FACT THAT YOU HAD YOUR FIRST CUP WIN THERE?
“That’s certainly the one that stands out probably the most, but Charlotte has always been special to me. The first time I ever traveled to North Carolina to pursue NASCAR and find out what it was all about, I drove by Charlotte Motor Speedway and was in awe of it then. Other than Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I’d never seen another track that stood out to me like that. And that was just looking at it from the outside.
“And then it was the first track that I drove on in a stock car beyond the Buck Baker Driving School. So, Charlotte has a lot of great memories for me; and also winning there twice in 1992 before I came into the Cup Series. My first pole came there. My first win came there in the Cup Series. So yeah, it’s a very special track.”
ON THE MEMORIES HERE AT DARLINGTON, IS THERE ONE THAT STANDS OUT WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT ALL THE SUCCESS YOU’VE HAD HERE?
“There are two that really stand out to me. Of course the Winston Million really stands out. There was a lot of hype around that. I can remember coming down. We did a TV show that promoted that and talked about it. I’ve always been hesitant to get behind ‘hype’ because it’s hard to live up to it (laughs). And, being a part of that, you also want to take advantage of an opportunity. And we did. And then we won it. And it was very, very cool to be a part of all that, and that whole experience, and then to go win it. And it was an exciting finish, as well.
“And then the other one was, I don’t know if this was the last summer I won here when we stayed out. Steve Letarte (crew chief) made a great gutsy move and we stayed out and had clean air. We had overheating issues and we won the race and pulled into Victory Lane and the radiator exploded. That’ll definitely standout for you. And my family, my mom and my stepdad and my sister were here. I don’t think my sister has ever been at a race that I’ve won. In all these years, she’s never been there. And she was here and they thought the engine was going to blow up. They heard it was overheating, and they left to beat the traffic. You can imagine. My stepdad got in a lot of trouble that day as they were listening to it on the (car) radio driving out of here (laughs).”
WHEN YOU TALKED EARLIER ABOUT FEELING THE PRESSURE AND UNDERSTANDING THE STRESS AT THIS POINT, FOR SOMEBODY LIKE YOURSELF THAT’S BEEN THROUGH SO MUCH, HOW DOES THAT COMPARE WITH DIFFERENT TYPES OF PRESSURES OR STRESS? CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU MEAN BY THAT?
“Yeah, I feel like I handle stress pretty well. And it certainly helps when you’ve been through it a number of times. But, it doesn’t mean that it goes away. You know what’s on the line. You know what you have to do. And that’s where I probably just try to turn my focus and attention to is just doing the job that I need to do and not try to overthink it and not trying to do anything over and above what I’m capable of doing and just doing my job and trying to help my team do their job the best they can by being there for them and giving them good information and communication. You always have to revert back to the things that you’ve been successful with. There’s always stress and pressure in this sport, certainly with the new Chase format; it’s added to it in a big way. And we’ve been in a situation before where we’ve gone to Richmond and we had to perform and I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job with that over the years. So, this weekend is not that kind of pressure, but certainly we realize that we’ve got two more races to go and that we’re not in a comfortable enough position to relax. And so, it makes your job a little bit more difficult. But I feel like we’re a team that can handle that.”
JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 3M CHEVROLET SS – QUALIFIED 5TH
ON HIS QUALIFYING SESSION AND HOW THE CAR FEELS:
“I’m excited. That was a really nice qualifying effort. The car was rock solid. We didn’t make a qualifying run yesterday, so I was pretty nervous coming into today with our 3M Chevy team. The guys really focused on the race, so I’m equally or more excited about the race than I am how well this qualifying session went. The car definitely has the speed. We kept up with the tires and the track, so I’m very proud of that top five.”
JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 3M CHEVROLET SS – FINISHED 16TH
ON THE RACE AND HIS THOUGHTS ON THIS AERO CONFIGURATION:
“I like the aero package. I like the race car. We just couldn’t ever get track position. I don’t know we struggled tonight. We got it pretty good on the short runs and we were mediocre on the long runs, but not great. We just had some issues on pit road.”