Watkins Glen: Preview, Press Conference & Qualifying Notes
JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 AXALTA CHEVROLET SS – 10TH IN STANDINGS
“I think road-course races are some of the best races, and a lot of that may have to do with the double-file restarts. Watkins Glen is a very fast, very demanding track where you have to attack and push the limits of yourself and the car. I’m really looking forward to this weekend. Last year, I thought we were really strong there, but we had a battery issue and spent time behind the wall replacing it.”
At Watkins Glen, Jeff Gordon has 4 wins, 4 poles, 6 top fives, 9 top tens, has an average starting position of 9.8, an average finishing position of 16.6 and has led 262 laps.
JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 AXALTA CHEVROLET SS, met with members of the media at Watkins Glen International and discussed his memories at racing at The Glen over the years, what makes him such a good road course racer, his thoughts on the high downforce package the teams will race at Michigan and many other topics. Full Transcript:
TALK A LITTLE ABOUT MEMORIES YOU HAVE HERE AT WATKINS GLEN AND THE GOALS OF THE WEEKEND:
“It’s a fun challenging road course. A lot different than what we have out at Sonoma, you’ve got to be really aggressive here. Aerodynamically the team has to really pay attention to that aspect, but as a driver you have to be super aggressive in the braking zones. It’s fun and challenging. It’s great when you get it right. It’s easy to get it wrong, but we’ve had some good success over the years and we’ve had some weekends that didn’t go so well. The last time we were here I was pretty encouraged with the speed that we had, even though we had an issue with the battery that prevented us from getting a good result. So far this weekend with the practice we just had, I felt like the car has similar speed to what we had last year.”
LAST YEAR COMING INTO THIS RACE REALLY GOOD ROAD COURSE DRIVERS HAD WINS AND BERTHS IN THE CHASE SECURED ALREADY. THIS YEAR THERE ARE A WHOLE LOT OF REALLY GOOD ROAD COURSE RACERS SUCH AS YOURSELF THAT DON’T HAVE A WIN YET. DOES THAT RATCHET UP THE INTENSITY AT ALL?
“Yeah, slightly. There are no guarantees unless you get that win. That win means so much. I feel like we are doing what we need to do from a point standings point of view. It’s important for us, if we can’t win this race, to be really solid again. To get a good solid finish and good points to build that buffer that we need if we can’t get the win. Our goal is to win. We feel like this is a great opportunity, but yeah, there are other guys that have a similar opportunity. I think (AJ) Allmendinger is certainly one that really stands out to me. But there are others as you mentioned. This is definitely one of the last, I would say, sort of wild cards. You think of restrictor plates and races on road courses as being a wild card of somebody that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily expect; not that the drivers and the teams that are dominating on the 1.5-miles and some of the other tracks to be able to find their way into it.”
WHAT HAVE ROAD COURSES LIKE SONOMA AND HERE WHAT HAVE THEY MEANT TO YOUR CAREER?
“I think early on I just remember wanting to take on every challenge as a team that we possibly could to improve to be a bigger threat for the championship. Back then you had to try to be good everywhere because every track mattered for the championship. It was something that we really pursued heavily. I enjoyed it, even though I didn’t grow up road racing a lot. I did enjoy it. We had a team and a car that was capable of being very competitive. Especially Ray (Evernham, crew chief) back in those early days when the crew chiefs had more flexibility, as to how you could find an edge over the competition he worked hard on the transmissions, the braking, the set-ups and gave me everything that I needed to go out and push the limits of the car and get a lot out of it. We started excelling at them. I think when you look at the drivers and teams that outsiders look at in our sport of who is at the top of the list, I think if you can add a road course win to it, it separates you from the norm and puts you into an elite group. When I look at my road course wins and all the different tracks that I’ve won at, I think it just kind of adds to the stats of putting me into a unique category that I’m very proud of.”
“No, I remember going to Sonoma the first time and turning the car over on its side in the tire wall. I felt like I was pretty lost. The second year I really felt a big progression and then the third year, which I think is when I won my first road course race, I think in 1995 or 1996, everything just started to click. We worked hard at it. There is no doubt we worked hard at it. That hard work paid off.”
HOW MUCH HAS THE CHANGE IN THE WAY THE POINT SYSTEM WORKS CHANGED THE WAY THAT TEAMS HAVE TO FACE THEIR JOBS WEEK AFTER WEEK?
“It seems like the intensity and what you are trying to accomplish is very much the same. You are trying to win everywhere. You are trying to put together, like in my position, I think because we run well on a lot of different tracks it has gotten us into a good points position that we are in or a solid one at least. If we were weak at certain tracks we might not be in the position that we are in, but there is no doubt once you get a win or two under your belt you start thinking about the championship and what you have to do in those 10 races. You can give up a lot of things. You can just go for broke and go all out and try new things and get super aggressive. It doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t accomplish what you want to accomplish in that particular race if you have those other wins to back you up. There are unique things that are very positive for the sport on both sides. Back when I won the championships it was interesting to see who could accumulate that over the whole year, but it got boring toward the end of the year a lot of times, not always, but a lot of times. With the Chase and the new format it’s always intriguing because there is always a storyline. But what is fascinating to me is once that Chase starts is to see what teams were experimenting and were really preparing themselves for the championship and how well they did and how much they step up to that next level of competition and competitiveness when it all starts. I really enjoy that side of it too. I’m disappointed we haven’t been able to excel at it and I’m hoping that does come our way this year.”
WHAT WERE YOU ABLE TO TAKE OUT OF RUNNING THE SOUTHWEST TOUR RACE PRIOR TO THE FIRST TIME YOU RAN AT SONOMA?
“I can’t remember if that was Ray Evernham forcing me to do that or if I wanted to do that. It seems like a Ray thing (laughs). Back then it was trying to get as many laps… you go into a track completely blind. We didn’t test at that track and I don’t even know if we could. I remember I went out to do the driving school out there to sort of learn the track. I guess I followed that up with the Southwest Tour race that didn’t go so well. It didn’t teach me much other than getting some laps that never hurts.”
WHAT MADE YOU SO ACCLIMATED TO THESE ROAD COURSES? WAS IT HAVING THE OPEN WHEEL BACKGROUND?
“I went to enough driving schools to get a little bit of knowledge. Prior to coming to NASCAR I was pursuing everything. If somebody gave me an opportunity to get in a racecar or to go to a driving school then I was packing my helmet and heading that way. I did it up at Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) in Canada. I did it with Skip Barber and I think after I started NASCAR I did the one out in Sonoma and I also did the one in Phoenix with Bob Bondurant. I’ve done a lot of those schools and then I drove a lot of different types of cars. I remember driving a Super Vee out at Indianapolis Raceway Park before I ever got into NASCAR. I did some go kart racing too. I didn’t do any shifting, but I did some go kart racing on road courses. I mean I went to the IKF (International Kart Federation) Nationals and finished fourth in 1980 or something in a go kart. It’s not like I didn’t have any road course experience whatsoever, but I never had it in a big car. I enjoyed the challenge. It was fun to do something different than ovals. I feel like ovals are what I’m best at and have been all the time, but I just was comfortable in going to a road course and doing something unique and different. Luckily I drove for a team that knew how to put good racecars underneath me not only on ovals, but on road courses. That made the learning curve come much easier for me.”
HOW MUCH BETTER AND DEEPER IS THE ROAD RACING TALENT POOL IN THE SERIES SINCE YOU ARRIVED?
“Well there is two parts to that. One is the cars are all so much more equal. Under the new rules that we have had for the last several years the cars are almost built by NASCAR in so many ways. It’s just so limited as to what you can do to the cars. We used to have full on specialized road course cars where they were completely dedicated to turning right more so than left. We shifted the weight around. We shifted the bodies around. We did a lot of things. That is all gone. Now we are basically racing cars that we would race on a short track we race here and they are not really designed for that. But, we make due with it. So the cars are very equal which makes the drivers look much more equal, but then you do have a deeper field as well. It just seems like everybody over the years, where road course racing seemed to be brought into the sport, it has been around a long time. I don’t know to me always when I think of drivers that were really good they did well on the road courses. But then you had this big drop off where drivers and teams just didn’t really go after them and really struggled on them. To me about late 90s is when I saw everyone really putting a lot more focus and attention on them. And it started bringing the whole level of competition up higher. By early 2000, 2001 it seemed like most of the field was good on a road course.”
WITH THE HIGH DRAG PACKAGE COMING BACK AT MICHIGAN HOW DO YOU THINK THAT MIGHT PLAY OUT AFTER COMPETING WITH THAT PACKAGE AT INDY? DO YOU THINK MICHIGAN MIGHT BE BETTER SUITED TO THAT PACKAGE?
“I think in some ways it’s better suited, some ways it’s not. It’s better suited and it’s wider and there is more ability to find some clean air. The package is great if you are in a straight line. It offers some really cool drafting opportunities and if you have some momentum that you carry off the corner it’s really cool. As soon as you get behind a car and you need downforce it takes it all away. A big wide track like Michigan as long as we can get away from the cars in the corners I think that it has the potential to create that big draft and momentum down the straightaways which is what we are all hoping for. We will know more when we get there, but I can promise you if you get in the corner behind somebody it’s going to be a white knuckle experience. It was at Indy so I know it’s really going to be one at Michigan. You are going to be really searching for clean air.”
WHAT WILL YOU REMEMBER MOST ABOUT RACING AT THE GLEN? DO YOU THINK THERE SHOULD BE MORE ROAD COURSE RACING ON THE SCHEDULE?
“It is interesting how it seems like they have gotten so intense and exciting and the fans and the media seem to really enjoy these races. I credit that to double-file restarts. The road courses were always pretty spread out and you didn’t see as much action on them when we had single-file restarts. When they went to double-file restarts and the more equalized cars all of a sudden these races just became bumper cars, flying through the dirt and knocking one another out of the way and tempers flaring. That brings a lot of entertainment value to it.
“I feel like I say this every weekend when I get asked about a track that I’m going to for the last time. I seem to remember the things that got away more than I think of the ones that were sitting in Victory Lane. Those are great moments and I’m proud of those, but I can’t help but think of spinning out in the closing laps here leading this race going into (Turn) 1 after I just watched Tony (Stewart) do the same thing about 25 laps before that. It was going to be a great battle between me and him. I just went in there and lost it. That one certainly stands out. I think I also ran out of gas on the last lap one time and got in (Kevin) Harvick’s way and he spun me out. I remember those. But I also certainly have fond memories of coming here and just enjoying the challenges. I feel very fortunate to have won four races here. I’ve come here before and really struggled. Just felt like I was completely lost. The year that, I don’t remember if it was the year Ella (daughter) was being born or Leo (son). Must have been Leo, when I had Scott Pruett standing in for me, we were really struggling. I remember talking to Scott about how loose the car was and hard to drive. He went out there just to get a feel for it in case he had to get in for me. He came in and his eyes were like (uses his hands) this big and he was like ‘I don’t know how you are driving that car.’ That was not a fun weekend. When you have weekends like that it makes you appreciate the good ones where you pull off the victory that much more.”
WHAT MAKES COMING TO THE GLEN SO SPECIAL FOR YOU?
“One of the things that makes it so special is that me and my family vacation in New York and so it’s very close. It’s a beautiful part of the country and road course racing is a lot of fun. There is a great crowd here. A tremendous crowd that has a good time here at Watkins Glen and it’s a track with tons of history. That goes back a long way in NASCAR’s history, but Formula 1 and all sorts of different types of road racing. It is a real privilege to get a chance to race here.”
JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 AXALTA CHEVROLET SS – QUALIFIED 5TH
HOW DOES FIFTH SETTLE WITH YOU?
“Yeah, not as good as we were hoping for. But based on yesterday, I feel like the car was really solid and we could get a little bit more out of it in some areas but that just didn’t happen. We ran just a little bit slower than we did yesterday and some other guys picked up. But still, fifth is a great starting position here at Watkins Glen. Our Axalta Chevrolet is really solid. We worked really hard on race set-up yesterday, so I’m hoping that this fifth position is close enough to the front that all that work will payoff for the race.”
A LOT OF GUYS WERE TALKING ABOUT TRAFFIC IN THE FIRST ROUND. DID THAT BOTHER YOU AT ALL?
“No, some guys went out a little bit later than we did in that second round. And I don’t know if the track cooled down or what, but we had really clean laps both times. We worked really hard on trying to do that. There was a little confusion on whether we could go through the Bus Stop or not, but as it turned out, it was pretty solid for us. But, that first round, I could see it being very easy to get held up in traffic. There’s just so many cars and it’s such a long lap that you get hot, especially if you just go for one lap, which most guys in the Cup Series are, you shut it off and you’re just way under speed and then you have no place to get out of the way, which is why we wanted to roll through the Bus Stop on our cool down lap. But, luckily it worked out for us.”