Atlanta: Qualifying Notes & Press Conference

2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Atlanta

JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 PANASONIC CHEVROLET SS – QUALIFIED 9TH

“I just love this race track. It’s a very challenging track where you slip and slide and search for lines and try to manage your tires. We’ve got such an awesome race car and race team that we’re bringing every weekend. Of course right now we want to keep the momentum going and keep the confidence going. Even though there isn’t a track like this in the Chase – maybe a little similar to Homestead where you have to really maximize that grip – it’s about going out there and having some fun and hopefully competing for a win.”

JEFF GORDON, NO. 24 PANASONIC CHEVROLET SS, met with members of the media at Atlanta Motor Speedway and discussed making his 750th start at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his longevity, last week at Bristol, Atlanta’s 2015 date and many other topics. Full Transcript:

TALK ABOUT YOUR 750 STARTS:

“That is a big number. I hadn’t thought about it a whole lot until I saw a decal with it made up. I thought ‘man that is a lot of races, especially in a row’. Really proud of that, it’s been an amazing career in the Cup Series. It seems like it was yesterday that it started right here over 20 years ago. I love this track. I love racing here, so it’s pretty cool to have 750 happening here.”

WHAT DO YOU ATTRIBUTE YOUR LONGEVITY TO?

“My strong back (laughs). No, I got very fortunate that I got a very young start as well as I got the chance to start with one of the best teams and team owners out there with Hendrick Motorsports and Rick Hendrick. It’s funny I did a thing this week with Kasey Kahne for Valvoline and we were talking about our start and how we got to the Cup Series and our path there. So we were reminiscing a little bit about some key moments that got us here. While he didn’t start as young as I did when he did start it was a pretty quick path. For me, when I moved to Indiana and started racing sprint cars and midgets and things like that it’s amazing how quick things happened. It seemed like one year I was graduating from high school and a year later I was going to drive a Nationwide car. A year later I was getting offers to go Cup racing and then two years later I was in the Cup Series. Two years after that I was winning my first Cup championship. All I can contribute it to is just a lot of good things happening at the right moments, meeting the right people and getting here at a young age. Then, good genes too. I’ve taken some big hits. Some that could have taken me out of contention to stop that streak. Yet, either the schedule worked out or my body healed itself or whatever happened. Here we are at 750. At the time, I didn’t really think about that, but now I look back on it and it’s something I’m proud of.”

HAVE YOU GOTTEN A CHANCE TO TALK TO TONY STEWART AT ALL TODAY? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT HIM COMING BACK AND DO YOU HAVE ANY OPINION ON THE FACT THAT HE HAS GOTTEN A WAIVER TO BE ABLE TO QUALIFY FOR THE CHASE?

“I sent him a text as soon as I found out he was coming this week. Very supportive of having him back and I know based on watching the press conference how emotional this has been for him. I do think that the best thing for him is to be in that race car. Don’t be surprised if he sits on the pole today, he was fast in his qualifying runs. So he might make quite a return.

“I think the whole intent of eligibility for the Chase is so that somebody doesn’t just go take a vacation after winning a few races. That is the
way I look at it. It’s not for unforeseen circumstances or medical or anything like that to prevent you from going out and competing in the Chase. They want the teams and the drivers that have earned their way in it and deserve to be in it. I believe if they win a race then I believe he should be in it.”

LAST WEEK AT BRISTOL YOU BROUGHT THE HOUSE DOWN WHEN THEY INTRODUCED YOU. WHICH WAY DO YOU LIKE IT BETTER WITH CHEERS OR BOOS?

“Well, it was because my Brad Paisley song that they were playing. Well, I like it this way obviously. It’s helped having Dale, Jr. as my teammate. They stopped booing me as much when he became my teammate. That was a big rivalry among our fans between Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and mine. Then a lot of the fans from when Dale, Sr. passed away that Dale, Jr. picked up of his fan base that also was booing. Those were fun times. That rivalry that our fans had was really cool. There were also some Ford fans versus Chevy fans that probably weighed in on that too. We all talk about it all the time how important rivalries are and how they can’t happen generically. They just have to happen organically and be real. You can’t just create it, it’s got to happen. It would be nice to see those things happening again and this Chase format this year might create that. It might just very well create that. I like it when they are cheering, but most of all as Dale Earnhardt, Sr. taught me early on the most important thing is that they are making a lot of noise. When they are making a lot of noise then you are doing something right.”

DID YOU HAVE A MOMENT THIS YEAR WHEN YOU FELT LIKE YOU MIGHT BE ON TO SOMETHING SPECIAL?

“Well, we started the season out really strong running really well. I think of California the third or fourth race of the season where we were super strong with what I thought was the best car on the track and a shot to win that race. It was a great battle between Jimmie (Johnson) and myself. I felt like at that moment we were on to something. That has continued and even gotten better. I feel like we were on to something and then we progressed down a path where we actually made things better. Then, we went to Kansas and won at Kansas and I think that was sort of that moment where we were thinking alright we have fast race cars and we can win races. Last year when we had fast race cars we didn’t really close very well. This year we are closing really well whether it’s restarts, whether it’s just the race cars themselves. Some of it is qualifying we have been qualifying a lot better lately as well. It’s just a lot of great effort from the team that started way back before this season started.”

CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT IT IS AND ALL THAT IT IS ABOUT BEING IN THAT RACE CAR THAT CAN BE THE BEST THING FOR TONY STEWART? WHAT IS IT ABOUT BEING IN THAT RACE CAR THAT SO MANY GUYS SAY THEY ARE AT PEACE? DOES IT JUST FORCE YOU TO BLOCK ALL THINGS OUT?

“The only thing I know how to compare is if you have ever played a really intense video game. When you are doing something that you are so focused on that nothing else is coming into your mind. Even if you are feeling pain sometimes you don’t even feel pain because the focus is so strong. It’s sort of that mind over matter thing where when you are in there you are doing something that you enjoy doing it’s also very challenging so your brain is on full overload of the senses that come along with driving that race car especially here in Atlanta. Here in Atlanta the track is challenging, it’s abrasive, the tire grip goes away fast. You are driving that car just about every second on the straightaways obviously you can relax a little bit, but those straightaways go by fast and those are big corners and you have your hands full all the way through the corner. To me it’s about once you get into that car you are not thinking of anything else other than driving that car and sometimes we all need something like that in life that puts us into that mode. That is why I’m not a big video game player, but when I do play video games most of the time it’s just to get my mind off of other things. I find that it’s the closest thing to that as possible. I don’t know what you have in your life that you could say that you do or focus on maybe it’s writing a story where you are just so intent on trying to think of what words you want to put together and what angle you want to have in the story and what quotes you want to use. You probably at that moment if you are really into it you are not thinking about anything else that is going on in your life. I think that is why I think it is great therapy to be in that race car.”

YOU CAME INTO BRISTOL RED HOT. DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU WERE ONE LITTLE BUMP AWAY FROM EVERYBODY SAYING JEFF GORDON REMAINS HOT HOT HOT?

“No I think the best way to sum up Bristol was that the No. 24 team had a little bit of an off night. Sometimes you are going to have that. That is the way I looked at it. We weren’t that strong when they dropped the green flag. I thought our race runs in practice were better than our qualifying runs so I was a little surprised we qualified as good as we did. I expected us to be even better in the race. We just weren’t right from the beginning. Even though I took the lead I felt like I took the lead I felt like I took the lead because Kevin (Harvick) got kind of stuck in traffic. Then Kyle (Busch) got by me right away. We needed to make some adjustments. It didn’t help having the damage from the No. 41 because then we had to change four tires we didn’t want to change four tires we wanted to only change two. Then we lost track position. Our car was off a little bit and we lost track position and then I missed the pit stall. I over shot the pit stall one pit stop. From that point on our night was pretty much over. We just never could really rebound.”

ON ATLANTA MOTOR SPEEDWAY’S DATE CHANGE FOR 2015 NASCAR SPRINT CUP RACE TO MARCH 1, 2015, DO YOU WORRY ABOUT WEATHER IN ATLANTA IN LATE FEBRUARY?

“I don’t care when we come here. I love this track. I’d come here in the middle of December if they would let us. Well, maybe I wouldn’t come here in the middle of December. Don’t quote me on that. This is an awesome track. Whatever works for them and for NASCAR and for the fans is good. I feel like it’s more of a move for Bristol than I think it is for Atlanta, which you could read into that however you want. I think it speaks volumes about the business side of the sport. But I’ve been here when it’s snowed before. So, I’m going to be ready for anything. As long as there’s not weather, we’ll have a very fast race car in good conditions for this track. And then you’ve got to talk to Goodyear and ask how that’s going to affect the tire wear. Are the faster speeds going to make it harder on the tires or better on the tires? I love this track. I love sliding around this track. We’ll be sliding around it whether we’re here in March, or April or August, or September.”

HOW DOES PREPARATION FOR THIS TRACK COMPARE TO TRACKS LIKE CHARLOTTE OR TEXAS THAT ARE SIMILAR IN SHAPE TO THIS ONE?

“They might look the same, but they’re nothing alike. Although, you’d be surprised at the set-ups, they’re not that much different. They have a lot of similarities, but how you drive it and your tire wear are extremely different. For Charlotte for instance, you’ll go out there and you’ll make a pretty fast lap and then your second lap is probably faster and that lap might be even faster yet. And then you’ll like of maintain a pace for a certain period of time; and then it will slow down very gradually and very little. Where here, you take off. It has grip in Turn 3 when you’re coming to take the green. And then it goes away from Turn 4 and then it goes away in Turn 1 and Turn 2; I mean it’s gone by the time you get back around. So, it’s one of the things that make this place very special. As a team you’re going to play around a little bit more with the shocks and springs to try to save those tires. You’re going to be searching around the race track as a driver, all over, to try to make laps that are consistent and keep the tires on the car and find some extra speed. In that sense, it’s completely different than Charlotte. But Charlotte is a lot different that Texas. Texas is different than Kansas. I would say that Kansas and Charlotte are maybe are more similar right now and Kansas is similar to Chicago, but a little bit more abrasive. They’re all different. They look the same, but they’re all different. But it’s all about the surface really.”

YOU HAVE BEEN RACING TONY STEWART FOR 16 YEARS IN THIS SERIES. WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOU AND THE SERIES AS A WHOLE NOT TO HAVE HIM AROUND FOR THE LAST THREE RACES?

“He’s an important part of the series in my opinion. He’s one of the best race car drivers I’ve ever raced against. I respect him so much. And, as well as the giving heart and soul the guy has. Before this whole incident happened, I was racing go-karts with him out in Knoxville raising a lot of money for charity. He said to me, ‘Let’s do it next year. This is so awesome, we’ve got to do this again next year.’ I said I’d do it for the next five years if he wanted. He said he was in. He’s that kind of person. He’s also a fierce competitor. So, on the track you know that if Tony Stewart is out there, you’re going to have to deal with him to win that race or to get that position. He’s just an awesome race car driver. And I probably haven’t spent as much time with him as a lot of other drivers have away from the track and getting to know that sarcastic side or that joking side to him. But the time I have spent with him, the guy is just a fun, good loving guy to hang out with. So, I think we’re all happy to have him back. We just hate what the circumstances were as to why he wasn’t here.”

OF YOUR 750 STARTS, WHAT ARE THE BEST AND THE WORST?

“The worst? I can think of a few crashes in Vegas and Pocono and Watkins Glen. But the best, I’ve had a lot of good moments. Luckily for me, they far outweigh the bad moments. And from Brickyard 400’s, all five of them, to Daytona 500 wins and some great battles and wins here (Atlanta) as well and championships. I mean, how much time do we have? It’s a long list. If I had to pick one great moment, it would be the inaugural Brickyard 400 if I had to pick one. This last one ranked right up there with it because Ingrid and the kids were there kissing the bricks. We didn’t do that in 1994. I guess if I had to pick one because I think my life changed forever after that 1994 Brickyard 400. Billboards, commercials, a trip to Disneyworld, going to the race track and being excelled at after that; it changed my life in great ways. I guess I’d have to pick that one.”

ON RACING AT RICHMOND NEXT WEEK, HOW THAT RATE WITH YOUR MOMENTUM?

“I think it will be good. I think Chicago is such a different track than Richmond, so I think it’s really about gaining momentum at the first race of the Chase and that one is where our strong suit is right now are those 1.5-miles. I can’t wait to get to Chicago no matter what happens this weekend or at Richmond. But, it is encouraging to know how well we ran there the last time, but at the same time, Richmond has been real hit or miss for me. I’m just really glad we’re not going into Richmond relying on Richmond to make it into the Chase like we did the last two years. That has been an extremely stressful and frustrating, even though we made it in. This year, I just feel like we’re far more prepared and ready to go get this Chase started and go be a real threat for the championship.”

THIS WEEK YOUR FAMILY GOT TO ENJOY THEIR VISIT TO AIR FORCE ONE AND THE PRESIDENT?

“They had a great time. Of course for Leo, it was about like kissing the bricks to him (laughs). He wasn’t that impressed. But yeah, that was an awesome opportunity when our friend reached out to us and said the President was coming to Charlotte and he’s been trying to get me to take a visit on Air Force One for a little while and now. But I was testing in Martinsville and so luckily my mom and my dad were able to go as well as Ingrid and the kids. They didn’t expect to be able to say hi to President Obama. They just thought they were going to go and have a tour. So it was quite a surprise and quite an experience for them. They’ve been talking about it all week and how cool it was. It’s interesting these days. You know, you have a seven year old daughter who missed a day of school and then goes back the next day and they say where were you and she says she was seeing the president and I went on Air Force One and they’re like oh right, where were you? (laughs).

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