An interview with:
JEFF GORDON and RICK HENDRICK
KERRY THARP: We have a special availability in here this afternoon at Homestead Miami Speedway. We have Jeff Gordon. He's driving the No. 24 DUPONT 20‑year Celebratory Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, and we're pleased to be joined by Jeff and his team owner Rick Hendrick. This is 20 years for Jeff Gordon in the DUPONT Chevrolet with Hendrick Motorsports, a terrific accomplishment in any walk of life to be together for 20 years.
Jeff, congratulations. Four‑time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, also getting ready to start your 689th straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday. That's third all‑time, and Rick Hendrick will be going for his 11th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship as an owner on Sunday afternoon with the 48 car of Jimmie Johnson.
More blog entries from this writer:
• Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr. (a book of great stories)
• Then Junior Said to Jeff... (the book of great NASCAR stories)
Jeff, let me ask you first, 20 years with DUPONT, a terrific organization. We have many of those folks today in the back row. Thank you for being here today. Just talk about the relationship you've had with DUPONT and the relationship you've had with Hendrick Motorsports.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, it's obviously been a phenomenal relationship and really a partnership. We saw them in the Nationwide Series getting involved with NASCAR racing. Rick can tell you more about the meetings that they had from the beginning that were interesting and what eventually led to the sponsorship. And once they came on board and took a chance on a rookie driver and a new team, kind of the rest is history. But those early days and our excitement of getting out there into the Cup Series and their excitement about what they could do for their customers and their business, and seeing those two come together, I think they've entertained more than 250,000 people at races over the years and really kind of set the benchmark for how sponsors go about entertaining their clients, their customers at track and how valuable that is from a business standpoint.
It's been really amazing all the great success. A lot of great memories and championships and wins, but this weekend that car really means a lot to me. It's a very cool‑looking car. To have 20 years with one company and to be with Rick for 20 years is something that I'm very proud of, and we look forward to a great weekend.
KERRY THARP: Rick, certainly you've won a lot of championships, four of them with the gentleman sitting to your right, but talk about the relationship not only with Jeff Gordon but also with DUPONT.
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I think everyone has heard the story of me seeing Jeff in Atlanta, and I have to thank Andy Graves, his roommate, for ‑‑ I just happened to say in front of Jimmy Johnson, who was the Jimmy Johnson that ran Hendrick Motorsports that it was a shame that this kid that I saw driving that Nationwide or Busch Car back then had a contract with Ford, and Andy Graves said he doesn't have a contract. So we went to work and we designed a deal without a sponsor.
I was talking to the folks at DUPONT because I was using their products in the dealerships, and I was asking them about an associate sponsorship and had no idea they'd go for ‑‑ they said, well, how about us sponsoring a whole car. And you look back at them taking a chance on Jeff and what they ‑‑ like Jeff said, the way they have entertained at the track and the paints that they've brought to the track, from the day glows to all the wild colors, then we've rolled that into SEMA shows. So it's been an unbelievable journey.
And I think 20 years has gone by in a hurry. But we really appreciate them because they have been there from the very beginning and they took a chance, and they deserve to have the success that they've had over the years. We're just proud to carry them on board, and you're right, to have a sponsor that sticks with you for 20 years, that's an awful long time.
Q. Is there something that Rick doesn't know about you after 20 years?
JEFF GORDON: There might be a couple things but not many (laughing). We've gotten pretty close. If you guys had a chance to see "Beyond 200," which I've got to say thank you to SPEED Channel for bringing all that together, Rick did a great job hosting it. But I was so impressed with that show. A lot of laughs, a lot of tears, but I think even those quick little bytes there in that show, I think it showed how Rick and I have bonded over the years through a lot of ups and downs.
I don't know, can you ‑‑ I can't think of anything that I'm willing to admit right here that he doesn't know. There's quite a bit.
Rick usually knows more than most of us think that he knows. I think he's got a pretty good idea about it.
Q. After Sunday and before the penalties were announced Monday, were you ever concerned that you wouldn't be here this week or this event?
JEFF GORDON: You know, I tried not to think about that. I know the folks at DUPONT were worried about it. They put a lot into this paint scheme and planning. This has been out ‑‑ really we've been talking about this for about 10 weeks, commemorating this moment with this car. Until I heard that they were worried about it, I wasn't too concerned about it. I knew there would be fines and penalties, but I felt like I'd be in the seat of that DUPONT Chevrolet this weekend.
Q. How do you feel after last week? And what lessons have you learned from Rick about ‑‑ he hasn't really had to work with you on anger or something over the 20 years you've been together.
JEFF GORDON: Not that you know of.
Q. Yeah, really. Behind closed doors maybe, huh? How do you feel after last weekend, and what have you learned from Rick about dealing with that sort of thing?
JEFF GORDON: Well, you know, I mean, the one thing that I'll say ‑ it probably won't be the one thing because I have a feeling that we are going there now ‑ is that last week, the thing that I regret and the thing that I messed up on is that I allowed my anger and my emotions to put me in a position to make a bad choice. I felt like that Clint needed to be dealt with, but that wasn't the right way to go about it, certainly not the right time. And what I hate most about it is that other guys were involved with it and it affected their day.
I certainly look back on it and wish I had done things different, and all I can do now is look ahead and look forward and try to come in here and do the best that I can to close out the season on a positive note and put this 20th anniversary DUPONT Chevrolet into victory lane.
Q. What did you tell him? How did you deal with it with him as the owner?
RICK HENDRICK: Let me try to frame this up for you the best I can: Here sits a guy that's done more for the sport than anybody I know. He's opened the doors for all the young guys, the open‑wheel guys. He's done things like Saturday Night Live, he's done the cover of Fortune. Never seen him have a problem ‑‑ not a major problem in 20 years, and mentored a lot of young guys along the way. You know, I think he just said it: His emotions got control on Sunday.
But I think you've got to go back, and I don't expect anybody in here to really understand this as much as maybe Jeff and I do, but at Martinsville this year, we was going for our 200th win. It was the first time I had my brother's wife there and the first time Jan Jackson, the representative of DUPONT, was there since the crash. We had a photo session before the race, and we were all wanting to win more than anything, more than any championship. The 200th win at Martinsville meant so much to all of us because we lost so much there.
And that was taken away from us. Both of our cars were wrecked on the last lap and next‑to‑last lap and it was by the 15 car. You didn't see our guys go down there and fight in the pits; we didn't do any of that. I have never hurt as bad in my life leaving the racetrack as I did that day. It took me a week or so to get over it just because we had it in our grasp. And that's just emotions that we carry and nobody else.
So I think that situation along with some other things that happened along the way, you know, you don't forget it. What happened happened, and I agree with Jeff, I like Michael Waltrip, I like Rob Kauffman, I like Richard Petty, I like Clint Bowyer, I like all those guys. If we had to do it all over again, could it have been handled a different way? I don't think Jeff intended to wreck him that bad or wreck him at all; move him, let him know he didn't like it, sure didn't want to get the other cars involved. But you've got to go with the emotions that happened at that time, and there's a lot of things that happened along the way, and this guy has as much right to race for fifth or sixth in the points as somebody has to race for second.
So I stand behind him no different than my son got in trouble at school for a bully beating on him and he stuck up for himself. So that's the way I feel about it.
Q. Jeff, seems like one thing that might make this situation kind of unique is that Bowyer was racing for a championship, and you kind of ended his championship hopes. Was there any consideration in the car, were you aware that that was going to do him in for the championship, and do you have any regrets over ‑‑ it wasn't just another driver but it was a guy that was contending?
JEFF GORDON: You know, I've always said this as it relates to the Chase, the championship, that if you're contending for the championship, you've got to be as smart about the things you do on the racetrack as the guys that you're racing that might be outside the championship. And there was absolutely no reason to run into me. That's the thing is you've got to understand each guy you're racing along the way, and you've got to understand if they're a guy that needs a ride next year, you've got to understand if they're a guy that is trying to finish 10th or 12th in the points or whether they're a guy that's racing for the championship. And it goes both ways. It's not just a one‑way street. We were racing for fourth in points in that race, and so there was a lot on the line for us as well as for them, and so I think that it just wasn't very smart of Clint to run into me coming off of Turn 2 on the straightaway, almost cut my left rear tire down, and know that we had past history this year.
And so afterwards, did it sit well with me knowing that that took his hopes out? No. He's also a guy I would consider a friend. There's a lot of things that didn't sit well with me after the fact. But at the moment, it's hard to kind of bring all that into your mind when you're upset about a situation. And that's why I said, what I regret the most is that the situation got escalated because I lost control of my emotions and let that put me into a decision that obviously wasn't a good one.
I think everybody thinks I just intentionally went down there and wrecked him, and that's not the case. I wanted to make his life really miserable, and I wanted to make my car really, really wide, but I wasn't expecting him to go diving down the inside on the apron, and when he did, it caused us to hook and caused what ended up being a terrible accident.
Q. Rick just addressed that the niche in the history of NASCAR is preserved well, four championships, five championships or more, and nobody questions the competitiveness, but could you have imagined going this many years without a championship after you got your fourth? And what kind of an impact on you is that?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, it's definitely been tough. Gosh, I look at the ‑‑ and a lot of people go through some incredible runs in the sport, and we went through one of the most amazing ones from '95 through 2001. I look back at the wins and the championships and the way things were going, and there was no stopping us.
We've been close a couple of times. The Chase has changed things a little bit for us, and there's been a few changes here and there that we've had ‑‑ I've had to personally adapt to as a race car driver that have made it a little more challenging, but I think that's what happens when you're in the sport for a long period of time.
I thought that we had a shot at winning one or two more over the years that would have been nice to have. But hey, four is still pretty good. I love how competitive this team is every year, going out there and battling for race wins and being in the Chase and battling for championships, no different than like what we did to make it into this year's Chase.
Q. Jeff, after the race and the incident, Joey had some comments I guess on Twitter and other places and Clint, and some of the themes were that it wasn't very champion‑like and they'd lost a lot of respect for you. Sort of a two‑part question. Do you think your reputation has taken a hit either in the general public or amongst your peers, and now as the father of two young children I assume maybe Ella is old enough to have seen it or maybe have an understanding. Have you had to have any conversation with her? I know she saw the incident with Burton at Texas last year and you had to have a conversation with her. Is this something as a father you've had to talk about?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, they didn't get a chance to see this one, so I haven't had to have that conversation with her. She knew that I was in a wreck, and like I have any conversations with her after I've had a wreck, explain to her how I'm fine and others were fine, but we didn't have to get into all the details.
Yeah, you know, I've been through a lot of moments throughout my career, some that I was more proud of than others. This is definitely not one of my proudest moments, but I also understand what kind of led up to it and I stand by that.
Will it take away from ‑‑ yeah, guys are going to ‑‑ if they get into incidents with you you're going to tarnish your respect among guys. I don't think they're going to be messing with me for a little while. I think they realize that that message was sent pretty clear. And I think that's something, too. It's been a real up‑and‑down year for us, and I go on Twitter, too, and I interact with my fans.
Throughout the last couple years I feel like one thing that maybe I haven't done enough of is show the fire inside me that I have to want to win and want to win championships. And I think that while I would have liked to have gone about it differently on Sunday, I think it did show that that fire and passion is inside of me in a big way.
I would have liked the caution to be thrown, gotten our tires and gone back out and raced for a top‑15 spot in the race and tried to come in here and get as high up in the points as we possibly could and dealt with it with Clint at another time. I feel like I race guys the way they race me, and nobody likes to get wrecked. And so I think that for me there were some things that I had been taking advantage of, and so obviously enough was enough. I usually like to make a mental note of them and hold onto those things and be patient with it and try to just outrace guys and move them out of the way and do things and wear them down that way and remind them of those things over a long period of time instead of taking them out right there at the moment.
Q. Rick, I apologize for going back to something that you said a few minutes ago, but I just had to ask about it. Realizing, understanding the sad legacy of Martinsville, but when you said that winning the 200th race at Martinsville was more important than any championship, did you mean that across the big picture or just that day?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, I meant ‑‑ maybe I didn't say it exactly right. The disappointment of being that close to having ‑‑ let me rephrase it. The low that I felt leaving that day was worse, it deeper down hurt more than the joy in some of the championships. That's what I meant. I can't explain how ‑‑ the disappointment that day, in all of the times that I have gone away from the track feeling bad and taken a long time to get over it. That's a personal thing, and all I'm saying to you folks is that that was a day that he and I had time together, he's an emotional guy, he's like a son, and we don't carry it on our sleeves, but those people were there for the first time. And so that's what made it kind of double tough.
Q. Jeff, I'm just curious, have you had a chance or have you spoken to Clint or Joey? Has there been any communication between the three of y'all?
JEFF GORDON: I have not spoken to Clint other than at the track on Sunday after the event in the NASCAR hauler. And with Joey, you know, I'm not one that calls right away. I like things to kind of settle down. I'd really rather do face to face, but he called me and so I called him back, and I can't say it went exactly very well. I reached out to him again to try to get together with him here at the track, and I have not been able to speak with him.
Q. Are you happy the season is coming to an end? Would you like to see it go on? Do you need a recharge for the next couple of months?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I feel like this has been one of those seasons where I think we're going to get momentum and things are going to start happening positively and we start to put some races together to find our way up further in the points, something just kind of reaches out and gets a hold of us and kind of knocks us back a little bit again.
You know, our team has worked so hard this year, and I'm so proud of them. We've had great race cars this year. But yeah, we kind of do need a reset, and I'm looking forward to the 2013 car. I tested it a couple weeks ago. I thought it went really well. I think we've got some great things in store for that.
I think Hendrick Motorsports in general has shown how well they prepare when a new challenge is thrown at us like this new car. So I think we've got some great things in store for us for next year. This is a good track for us. I look forward to this weekend.
But I always ‑ it doesn't matter how the season has gone ‑ look forward to taking a little time off. Our season is long, but when you've had a season like I've had, then yeah, you're definitely looking forward to taking a little break, spending some time with family. But it's also a very busy time. It's just not a busy time at the racetrack preparing for a race.
Q. How disappointing would it be if you weren't in the top 10?
JEFF GORDON: Well, at this point, being 10th or 11th is ‑‑ to me that's not what it's all about. I'm more disappointed that we don't have a shot at being fifth because I felt like we had a legitimate shot at being in the top 5, and I think that would have been one incredible accomplishment for us the way our season has gone, even the way our Chase has gone, to be able to say that we finished in the top 5 this year. At this point the difference between 10th and 11th or 12th is kind of insignificant.
Q. My question is about your being a champion. As far as championships in general, that's what this week is all about. What would you think a contender must do to rise above or a few things a contender must do to rise above and become a champion?
JEFF GORDON: In this particular weekend or just in general?
Q. Yeah, in general, any champion.
JEFF GORDON: It's the same ingredients I feel like that the champion has that comes out on top every year, and that's teamwork, commitment, great leadership, and just a lot of hard work and effort that goes into building that team up to be ready to go do what you have to do for those 10 weeks in the Chase. And I always believe that the best overall team wins the championship. We'll see what happens on Sunday, who that is, but I think that the best two are definitely up there.
It's not surprising to me that Brad is where he's at. Last year I thought that he showed a lot of maturity, I think that team showed a lot of strength, and they're up against, what more can you say about the 48 team and what they've gone out and shown and do every year.
Q. When you said that you don't think anybody would be messing with you, do you feel like this is over as far as between you and Clint, and then also, when you said it wasn't kind of the right place or right time, do you feel like these things need to be handled on the track or off the track?
JEFF GORDON: Oh, there's the million‑dollar question. Well, obviously with the way the penalties are put out there, you can't handle them on the racetrack. But I think that you've got to handle it through how you race. I mean, that's ‑‑ I guess I'm a little old school when it comes to this. Talking about 20 years, I've been wrecked, I've been caught up in other people's wrecks, I've been on both sides of it, all sides of it throughout all these years, and I didn't expect a phone call, I didn't expect somebody to come and spend an hour with me explaining things, and usually the ones that did were the ones that did it just because they didn't want you to wreck them back.
So to me, you've got to understand the situation, and to me, like Joey getting caught up in it, I'm definitely sorry about that, and I take responsibility for that. I want to try to make it up to him best I can.
Another example I can give you is I wrecked Martin Truex a couple years ago at Sonoma, and I was racing Juan Pablo behind me, got in the corner two deep and ran into him, completely my fault, and I reached out to him because I did, I felt bad about it. It had nothing to do with him, it wasn't a racing ‑‑ like us racing hard or me having any animosity towards him at all.
You know what, he and I never spoke. I left him a voicemail, but we never spoke, never spoke at a racetrack, nothing, and we raced hard for, shoot, a year and a half of me racing him for position, sliding inside, doing everything I could not to wreck him to show him that this is how I'm going to treat you, and he raced me as hard as you can possibly race me knowing that he had that against me.
And so, you know, that's kind of the way that I like to go about things. Somebody does something to me, I'm either going to ‑‑ if it's a racing incident, I'm going to try to race them back in the same way they raced me. If something happened by accident, then I'm going to understand that ‑‑ I'm going to make them kind of pay the price for making a dumb move, but at the same time, I'm going to be as respectful as I can over the situation.
You know, every situation is unique, and I can't control what's going to happen out there or what other guys are going to do against me this weekend. I'm going to focus on what I can do, and if ‑‑ I'm pretty sure if they're having a good day, they're not going to mess with me. If they're having a really bad day and feel like they have nothing to lose, then maybe they will. We'll see. I prefer it to be handled on the racetrack, though. I'm not the biggest guy in the world, and kind of one of the reasons I got into racing. We're all the same out there.
Q. It's a little hypothetical here, but take yourself out, and if you were an outsider looking at what happened last week and somebody else was in your role, how do you think you would react to the whole situation and everything?
JEFF GORDON: I would tune in the following Sunday and see what happens.
Q. Given that, you think it is good for the ‑‑ has some validity to being good for the sport?
JEFF GORDON: They wouldn't be advertising for the race using all those clips if it weren't, I guess. Nobody intends to go out and do that for that reason, but I mean, I've gained a lot of Twitter followers this week, and there's certainly been a lot of talk, a lot of buzz, and I have a feeling there's going to be a lot of buzz around this race on Sunday for a lot of different reasons, not just that.
More blog entries from this writer:
• Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr. (a book of great stories)
• Then Junior Said to Jeff... (the book of great NASCAR stories)