JEFF GORDON met with members of the media at Daytona International Speedway and discussed his thoughts heading into the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and many other topics.
THE MODERATOR: We are now joined by Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Welcome here to Daytona International Speedway. Can you tell us what's it like to be here at the World Center of Racing as we get ready for the 56th running of the Daytona 500?
JEFF GORDON: It's fantastic to be back. Unfortunately we didn't get to do much today, so that was disappointing to watch it rain all day. But no, the excitement has definitely been building. I was saying earlier that I really love, for me, coming off of my vacation and getting to the shop and spending time with Alan and the engineers every year this time of year. It's exciting to hear all the things that they've been thinking about and creating ways to make you better as a team, make your cars go faster with some of the new rules that NASCAR implemented, with the cars, with the ride heights, just trying to figure out how we can maximize all those things to our potential.
So yeah, this is exciting to get down here to Daytona, especially with all the hard work that goes into Daytona of what we have to do to be fast here, be a threat for the pole, which is very important here. When we get on the track, I look forward to seeing those results.
Q. It was just announced that Steve Letarte is going to go to NBC in 2015. I wonder how you think he'll do and what effect it'll have on Hendrick Motorsports and the progress that Dale Jr. will make in 2014 knowing that in 2015 his crew chief will move to the television booth.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I think he's going to do fantastic. We all know Steve is a good talker, and he's very knowledgeable about the sport, very passionate about it, and so I think they've made an excellent choice there.
You know, I think only time will tell how it's going to affect them, but I think Steve is very, very good at compartmentalizing the commitment and what it takes to do his job as a crew chief and be the best crew chief that he can be, and he and Jr. have a great relationship, and I'm sure when the news first broke to Jr., it probably was a bit of an adjustment, but I feel like they've worked through all the details on how to maintain that level of competition, the momentum that they had from last year, and keep that going through this year.
Q. Were you surprised that Steve opted to move from Hendrick where he's been for 20 years to the broadcast booth?
JEFF GORDON: Not necessarily. I mean, I've seen him do some work with TV and radio over the last year or two, so I can't say I was totally surprised. He's a young man that has a lot of talents and is always eager to take that next step in life. He has a family. It takes a lot to be a crew chief. It's quite a commitment, and I think this is a great opportunity for him.
Q. I'm doing a story on turning points, twists of fate, that kind of thing, where drivers' careers have turned and moved to the next level. The thing that comes to mind for me was 1990 when Rick Hendrick and Humpy Wheeler were watching you drive a Busch Car in Atlanta from the stands.
JEFF GORDON: '91.
Q. What would you say in your opinion would that be that twist of fate that got you to where you are as far as today?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, there's so many. You don't make it to this level without having some moments that kind of maybe separated you from others in the field and got you that opportunity, and I look at the successes and the failures. Prior to me being hired by Raleigh Helming to drive on ESPN's Thursday Night Thunder the night before the 500 where we set a new track record and won that race in fairly spectacular fashion, prior to that I was racing for McBride and Shoff in a sprint car in the All‑Star Series and got fired because I was tearing up too much of their equipment and wasn't winning enough.
To me that moment where I did not succeed in that sprint car gave me a new opportunity to go and be very successful in a midget in a sprint car on pavement in front of a big audience that took my name from being an up and coming sprint car driver to being a talent in the open‑wheel field as well as a couple years later being a driver that even an owner in NASCAR would consider.
I don't know if it was a specific moment, but I guess winning that race the night before the 500 would be the specific moment.
Q. Given everything that happened last season, especially with the Chase, have you stopped to reflect and have any takeaway, what's your takeaway from last season and then do you bring any of that into the following year, or is it a new slate?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, don't be 11th or 12th in points going into Richmond, or 13th, or whatever we were.
For me it's about getting off to a better start, and really the last two seasons we have not gotten off to a great start. Some of it in our control, some of it out of our control. I think definitely Vegas is on our radar. We have not run well at Vegas the last couple years. That has had an impact. Even though it's one race, it still has had an impact on the momentum and our confidence level. Qualifying the last two years starting the season weren't great, either. We certainly seemed to get that turned around halfway through this past season, and hopefully we can continue that.
But I think just getting off to a better start. That doesn't mean you've got to go and win the first five races. It just means try and eliminate the 20ths and the 25ths and try and put yourself in position to get those top 10s and hopefully turn those into top 5s or wins. Get the points, get the momentum and then run with it.
In some ways Alan and I have had conversations about maybe we've been too aggressive at the beginning of the year trying to get off to a great start and things didn't go well and we got a little bit behind on saying, okay, let's get back to the basics.
I think we're going to try to blend the basics and some of the new things that we think are going to be successful for us.
Q. When you look at the all‑time numbers in the Cup Series, like you and a bunch of old guys are up at the top.
JEFF GORDON: Thank you. I appreciate that. I shaved this morning because I had a beard that I had grown for about three weeks, and I looked in the mirror, and I was like, wow, man, I am really gray. I felt pretty old this morning. I was actually feeling a lot younger after I shaved until now.
Q. That was kind of my question. When you start a new season, do you feel like a veteran, experienced driver, or do you feel like a young guy with still a lot to prove?
JEFF GORDON: Well, this time of year I always feel rejuvenated because I've had a break. I feel excited because I see the things my team is working on, all the hard work they've done. It's a fresh start to the season. I feel young at this moment.
But when I roll out of the bed in the morning, I realize that I'm 42 because I have aches and pains that I didn't have 20 years ago. I'm reminded of my age. But when I get to the track, I'm still as passionate and as excited, if not more so, than I've ever been.
Q. Jeff, you've got star power, shaven or unshaven.
JEFF GORDON: Thank you.
Q. What do you believe motorsports champions and celebrities, rock and country stars, what do you believe sets them apart and helps them rise to the top? There are plenty of musicians and actors and drivers who never do.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I mean, it's a great question, and I do think there are common denominators among different fields that seem to separate those that become successful and those that don't. I mean, sometimes it is just a lucky break, but I feel like most of the time it's ‑‑ first you have to recognize the talent and then you have to really work hard at taking that talent to the next level, and then you've got to be at the right place at the right time.
I'd say that a lot of people would probably say the same thing, and that's how it was for me. I mean, I raced against plenty of kids growing up that I thought were very, very talented, but they didn't get the breaks or they weren't at the right place, or maybe they did lack a little bit of that extra effort that it takes to do whatever it takes to make it.
There's some people that are just super passionate about it that maybe don't quite have the talent but they find a way to work harder to make it work, and then there's others that have all the talent in the world and don't put enough effort into it and never make it. I think it's a combination, but you certainly have to have that lucky break, and I say lucky break, to me you make your own luck by how much effort you put into it.
Q. You mentioned earlier about the struggles at the beginning of the season the last couple years. You talked about being way too aggressive at times. What do you mean by that? Is that setups ‑‑
JEFF GORDON: Setups, mainly setups. You know, just on paper seeing things that are in the sim, in the wind tunnel, that you think are going to be something that separates you. You go, aww, man, that setup just looks amazing on paper, we're going to go super fast with this, and then you get to the track and there's a sequence of bumps that are upsetting the car such that you're not able to take advantage of that aerodynamic package that you guys came up with.
I don't think that it's been overaggressive on the track or in pit calls. It's mainly just been saying, okay, we've got this that is not something that's proven, not something that we've raced before, but we think it's going to be really fast, and you try to race it and then you go, okay, didn't work this weekend, maybe we try it next week, and then you find yourself saying, oh, maybe it's not as good as we thought it was, and let's start rethinking it. And all of a sudden you're 10, 12 races into the season and you're behind.
I mean, that's just one small example. There's many things that we can do to be better, even at our best. There's some things as a group we can all do. I've got to improve my restarts. There's no doubt about that. That's an area I can be more aggressive with and have a little more of that I‑don't‑care‑what‑happens‑through‑Turns‑1‑and‑2 attitude. And then there's areas where maybe we could be more aggressive on our pit calls, as well, on the track position. But then there's other areas where we were too aggressive.
You know, it's certainly a combination, but that with the setups is one thing that stood out in our minds when we talked during the off‑season.
Q. To go back to Steve for a minute, you had a year where you almost won the championship with him in '07, Jr. has come alive with him the last couple years. What is Hendrick going to lose from a crew chief's perspective when he steps away?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I think we certainly had high hopes for a long future with Steve. He's been there for a long time, and he's brought a lot to Hendrick Motorsports. He started as a kid there and has really grown into being one of the top crew chiefs.
You want to be able to have that experience as well as knowledge. He's a smart guy, and you want to have that on your side in any shape or form, whether as a crew chief or in another role at Hendrick.
So yeah, to me the biggest thing that stands out is just how well he and Jr. connect and what the future will be for that position for Jr. beyond '14.