JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 AARP MEMBER ADVANTAGES CHEVROLET SS, met with members of the media at Sonoma Raceway and discussed his success at Sonoma Raceway, what drivers and teams can expect with the new rule changes at Kentucky Speedway, his relationship with the Earnhardt’s and many other topics. Full Transcript:
HIS THOUGHTS ON RACING AT SONOMA FOR THE LAST TIME:
“I love coming out here. Not just because it’s home. It is just so many things. The weather, the wine country, family and I love this racetrack. I’m thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to win here five times. I’m thrilled to be here this weekend for the final time behind the wheel. It has already been a very special, memorable one. Just starting last week going to Rio Linda and then out to Vallejo, I think it’s only the beginning of what we have in store for us this weekend.”
WE KNOW YOU ARE A GOOD ROAD COURSE RACER, BUT WHEN YOU LOOK AT YOUR STATS HERE 22 RACES 18 TIMES YOU HAVE FINISHED IN THE TOP 10, 14 TIMES IN THE TOP FIVE AND FIVE WINS. IS THAT KIND OF MIND BOGGLING? DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT WHEN YOU COME HERE?
“It certainly gives me a lot of confidence in what we are bringing here and what I’m doing here and just the way we execute is working. This track reminds me so much of Martinsville in the way in which very little changes here. From how you have to set the car up, tires, gearing, all the things that change so much at all the other big tracks, where aerodynamics are playing such a huge roll and track position. All these things that we talk about being so difficult and challenging as things evolve in the sport this is one of those that has stayed constant.
“What I learned early on in my career at tracks like Martinsville and Bristol and on the road courses, especially this one, even more so than Watkins Glen because it’s a faster track at Watkins Glen, so aerodynamics play a bigger role, but here it’s about finesse. It’s about being aggressive, but not too aggressive, finding grip in the tires and trying to maintain that grip. The speed falls off abruptly over a run so there is tire management and just being smooth and consistent that really pays off. When I go back to the very first time I was here it didn’t go quite so well. I don’t know where I finished, but I struggled. I got into the tire wall back when they had the carousel. Pretty much, I wouldn’t call it a flip, but ended up on my side and destroyed my car and went to the back-up car. So it’s nice to know that things changed quickly after that first year. It was a real challenge for me and a lot of competitors out there. I really took that challenge on and really wanted to do well here and do everything I could and the team did as well. That is where things really started.
THAT FIRST YEAR YOU FINISHED 11TH …
“I don’t know how we pulled that off (laughs). I’m not sure. I guess I learned my lesson over there in the carousel prior to the race. I don’t remember all the details of how that race went, but I’m pretty sure it was the second year when we came back when I was running behind Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) and watching them battle it out. It was sort of like being at Daytona in 1993 for my first ever Daytona 500. I was in awe, didn’t know what I was doing there and I didn’t know how to execute to try to win it. That second year that was sort of how it was, I was just riding along watching not sure how to get ahead of them. But I learned a lot in watching that and we started to go on a pretty good streak of our own.”
EXCEPT FOR NEW HAMPSHIRE NOW YOU ARE GOING TO EVERY TRACK FOR THE LAST TIME. I’M CURIOUS IF THAT HAS KIND OF SUNK IN AT ALL?
“Certainly this one especially it is staring to sink in. It was hard at Atlanta. It was so early in the season. We had so much racing left to go and even still there is a lot left to go. We are focused on winning and a lot of tracks and the Chase and everything else. But I think because of what Steve (Page) and all the folks at Sonoma have done and just family and friends that I have out here. It does feel different. It feels a little more emotional and I think that will ramp up through Sunday. This has been a very special place for me and always will be. To know that this if the final time that I will be driving here and just the build-up – going to Rio Linda to that quarter midget track last week that was the first place I ever raced at. That just built a lot of emotion into what is occurring this weekend. It also adds pressure that I want to do really well this weekend.”
WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS FOR THE RULES PACKAGE AT KENTUCKY? WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO NASCAR’S STATEMENT THIS WEEK REGARDING THE CONFEDERATE FLAG?
“Kentucky we won’t really know until we get there and we experience that package. I think that the tire is still not quite soft enough for the amount of downforce that is being taken off. That was a big thing for me. I was really in favor of seeing more downforce being taken off. When this engine package was decided to be the engine package, I felt like in order to compliment that and keep the racing exciting and the drivers really working hard inside the car. And the teams needing to work to get the cars working well or better than the competition we needed a tire to match up to that. That was going to have some fall off, like what we see here. The tires have a lot of grip at the beginning and then they start to fall off pretty substantial and I think that makes for great racing. That is what I would like to see everywhere we go. So, there was a step that was made for Kentucky previous to these rules, but then when the rule change came the tire has not changed. I think I heard that there may be an option, so we will know when we go and test.
“As far as the confederate flag I think that… I know how we approach it at Hendrick Motorsports and that is everything that we can control. We have eliminated the ability to use it in anyway or it show up in any of the things that we are involved with. I think that is the stance I see that NASCAR has taken and have had that stance for several years. To me I’m in support of what they are doing. It’s a delicate balance. We race all over, but the South is an area where we have a lot of fans. Everyone has different opinions and expression of that. I support NASCAR and the stance that they are taking.”
SINCE YOU LAST WON HERE HOW MUCH HAS CHANGED ABOUT HOW EQUAL THE DRIVERS ARE AT THIS TRACK?
“I can remember showing up here early on and very few drivers were excited about coming here. They all were like ‘oh my gosh a road course.’ Because they just knew the chances of sliding off the track and making mistakes. And that it really wasn’t a factor in the championship, but as competition grew everywhere it also grew on the road courses and everybody started realizing you couldn’t allow even one race to get away from you. That started forcing the teams and drivers to step up their game on the road courses. For me I did a little road racing prior to racing in NASCAR just go karts and things. I never had shifted; well I guess I did a little bit, not racing, but just some practice. I really just loved that challenge. I loved it. I thought it was fun to attack a racetrack like that and try to figure out how to do the down shifts smoothly, put the lap time together, connect all the corners and make as much of a perfect lap as you possibly can. Over the years I have seen that progress with other drivers and teams. I think the cars are far more equal today than they used to be. We used to be able to have some areas where we could find an edge. Maybe in the transmission or the braking, the set-up, where we moved the weight around and things like that. These days we are just not able to do that. It really has not only equaled out the cars, but has allowed the drivers to be more equal on these tracks as well.”
WITH MARCOS AMBROSE RACING BACK IN AUSTRALIA IT SEEMS LIKE MANY PEOPLE HAVE SAID HE WAS THE TOP ROAD RACER. WHERE DOES AJ ALLMENDINGER RANK IN THAT CONVERSATION NOW?
“Well he ranks up there as much or more. He outran Marcos (Ambrose) at Watkins Glen last year, which I thought was extremely impressive because I had been racing with Marcos that weekend up until we had our issues. And he was strong, he was really tough and I didn’t think anybody was able to beat him that weekend. The fact that AJ did, shows what his talents are on a road course. I will say that this road course it takes a different type of driving style. AJ is extremely aggressive. Nobody drives in the corners deeper than AJ does. I think that at Watkins Glen that way of attacking the racetrack is very beneficial and definitely puts good lap times together and is tough to beat. Here I think there is a fine line and balance between that. I think AJ has the skills to be the fastest and the best here this weekend, certainly in qualifying. Then it’s going to come down to executing that in the race. I would say he is the guy to beat.”
GROWING UP DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL MEMORIES OF CELEBRATING FOURTH OF JULY OR WERE YOU ALWAYS AT A RACETRACK?
“I have always been at a racetrack. The only memory that really stands out to me is one time I went go kart racing in Quincy, Illinois and I think fireworks were illegal where our hotel was, but they were legal where the racetrack was. I bought the fireworks where they were legal and brought them over to where they were illegal and caught a tree on fire. I do remember that (laughs). Other than that I can just always remember being at a racetrack. Not the grand fireworks that we certainly have these days I can promise you that.”
AS A GUY WHO CAME INTO THIS SERIES ORIGINALLY AS THE OUTSIDER FROM CALIFORNIA I WAS WONDERING WHAT YOUR RELATIONSHIP HAS BEEN LIKE WITH THE EARNHARDT’S OVER THE YEARS?
“It’s an interesting dynamic because I know with (Dale Earnhardt) Senior and myself right away battling for the championship in 1995 created a rivalry among our fans. And somewhat among ourselves as well, but Dale had this amazing knack of embracing that publicly, but then privately it was almost as if we weren’t even competitors. He really gave me great advice. He only gave you advice about racing when you asked for it and he was limited on that. But if it came down to business or the sport in general he was an open book. I don’t know if it was my curiosity and asking the right questions or him just being very gracious towards me in that sense. That part of the relationship was fantastic. It was not what you saw at the racetrack. At the racetrack he had that demeanor of the intimidator and he showed it on the track and walking down pit road and anywhere around the track, in the media center, whatever it may be. Then all other times it was different, which I was fine with. That was fine with me too.
“As far as Dale (Earnhardt), Jr. I mean he (Dale Earnhardt, Sr.) introduced me to Dale, Jr. when Dale was maybe 16, 17 years old. I don’t know. He is not that much younger than me. He’s only a few years younger than me. At North Wilkesboro, I remember, and he was running a late model there and Dale, Jr. has always been very gracious to me as well. I don’t know. I guess because of the respect that his Dad and I had maybe that transferred over to Dale, Jr. and myself as well. But certainly for quite a while when his Dad passed away it seemed like the rivalry among the fans was there with Dale, Jr. and myself. I know that when he became my teammate there was some displeasure in that because they thought that still existed. But that really never existed between Dale, Jr. and myself like it did with me and his Dad. Because Dale, Jr. and I have never really battled for a championship and we have always enjoyed one another’s company and friendships and what we did on and off the racetrack.” JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 AARP MEMBER ADVANTAGES CHEVROLET SS – QUALIFIED 5TH ON HIS QUALIFYING EFFORT: “After the first run we were third and I certainly got encouraged that I could make a few adjustments and hit my marks. I think the car was capable of being at least first or second. I missed one corner there on that last run and I don’t know how much that cost me, but overall it was a really solid effort. I’m excited to have AARP Member Advantages on board this weekend. We are trying to take advantage of somethings ourselves here and having fun this weekend.”