Jeff Gordon drove his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet to his 83rd NASCAR Cup Series victory on Sunday, tying him for fifth all-time with Cale Yarborough, and ending a 66-race win-less streak. Afterward, he and crew chief Alan Gustafson met the media.
First of all, how cool is that to tie Yarborough. That is the ultimate. First guy I ever drove a Cup car for was Cale Yarborough. A lot of people don't realize that. Of course, I spun the car that day, too!
Man, I don't know where to start. First of all, they dropped the green flag and I knew that we had something special. The car just, it was doing a lot of great things. It was turning good. It was getting off the corner really strong. And you know, I just – I mean, I know how good Kevin Harvick is around this place and we were just hanging right there with him and picking our way through some of the cars there. I was like, man, we have got something really good here.
Sequence of events, really I guess it was just to mess with our emotions, because I'll be honest, I thought we were done. When I hit the wall, I hit it hard over there, when Carl had his problems and just went in him outside of the three and he just drifted up, not his fault, I think he had a left front tire go down or something and put us in the wall and I thought we were done. Came into pit road and Alan [Gustafson, crew chief] orchestrated those guys fixing it and he said, 'No, man, I think it looks all right.' They dropped the green and it felt OK. We only made a half-lap and they wrecked on the back straightaway and they all came to pit road and we were sitting there like fourth. I was like, all right. And then we drove up, took the lead or something not too far after that and I was like, wow, this is an unbelievable sequence of events and turnaround.
And I knew at that time, we had a car that could win. We had a great battle with Stewart, and he was really strong on the long runs. Our car was real strong on the short runs and then we seemed to wear the right front tire out a little bit. And Alan made some great calls, great pit stops, and you know, we were out front there. When Kyle got us on that green flag exchange, I was a little concerned because I know how good he is, and how good he is here. I mean, nobody beat him at anything this weekend. So I was looking forward to the battle and the challenge, because I knew how good our car was.
I had no idea Tony was out there on two tires, and then the caution came out. He got that jump on the restart and I was like, man, that's going to be hard to catch. We just started picking away at him and the car was so good, I could see his car going away a little bit on the exit, and that is where our car was so strong.
Today, the difference for me was that we have had cars – we have been in position to win races, like even here, and you know, with our spun the tires on the restart or whatever it may be, but I have not been in a position to put pressure on the leader to force him to make mistakes and be in control of the situation in a very long time. And that's what I love so much about today is to be in that position was such a cool feeling, and at that moment, you don't care if it's Kyle Busch or who it is; you feel like you're in control of your destiny and it got a little hairy getting into one of them, I admit.
I was shocked I even got underneath him and I was like, all right, I'm going to check up early because I was afraid he was going to do the swap-over on me. He's pretty notorious about that.
I drove in easy to try to get a good run off of two and not let him do the swap-over and I kind of felt him on my right side and my car got real loose and we banged a little bit and slipped the racetrack and my spotter said clear, and I drove off and I looked up and he was three or four car lengths behind me and I'm like, yes, let's go. Then it was just putting some laps to go.
Q: Let's hear from crew chef Alan Gustafson. Congratulations on this win and your thoughts about, as Jeff said, hit wall that one time and you had to really work some great things on pit road today.
Yeah, not only today. It was the weekend as a whole was not the easiest of weekends for us. We started on Friday with the new tire. We were off quite a bit on it. We were not very good at all. And we had to work really, really hard to get the car better. Didn't quite get as far as we wanted to get on Saturday and qualified a little bit farther back.
But we knew, we felt like we were gaining on it all weekend and we didn't know if we were going to get there in time or not. But we knew we were headed the right direction and today as Jeff stated, when the race started, we got pretty close and their car was good.
And the first 60 laps of this race, I felt like we ran five or six races. It was chaos. It was crazy. Wrecking, everybody everywhere, track position, flipping, guys in the back staying out and stacking people up. We got in the fence, unfortunately, with Carl, he had his issues and got us up into the fence, and we worked really hard at that point in time. It's really hard to know what you have and the guys did a great job fixing it and getting it back right. Like Jeff said, we went back out there and made half a lap and they wrecked about 18 more of them it. We came, drove back around and after that, had the track position and it was pretty evident that we had a really, really good car. We just had to tune on it and get it right.
At the end of the race, you hate giving it up on the pit stop exchange, the green flag exchange, but I felt at that point in time we had come a long way to get where we were at and were going to make it interesting. Jeff Gordon, he was perfect in the car and got everything he could out of it, and he just put together 20 qualifying laps and got the job done.
Q: Jeff, last week obviously there was a lot of excitement about how the race finished and a new face in NASCAR. Is there anything about this race or track that you think of being a veteran of experience helps succeed?
Well, not as much as having a fast racecar. This is an abrasive – you are comparing apples to oranges. You have Daytona two-car drafts, restrictor plates. There's no comparison if that's what you are trying to compare to.
This week, you look at Kyle Busch, he's was really strong but so is Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Carl. I think you've got – you've got to have a little bit of experience, no matter how good your car is to run good here. But I can tell you, I've had a lot of experience here and I've been here a lot of times and this is only my second win. So it's not just about experience.
But I will say that the two characteristics that are alike with those two wins is the car did about the same thing. It did what I wanted it do, which you would get in the corner, it would cut the middle and drive off really hard and strong. The last time I had a car that did that, besides today was the last time we won here.
But this is a tricky place. It's not easy. So you know I think it's been one of the most challenging tracks that I've had in my career, but then you have days like today where you're like, well, man, it almost seemed easy because the car drove so good. That makes up for a lot of things, I'll tell you that. But this is not an easy track to just come to your first time or first couple of times. You're not necessarily just going to go fast.
Q: The moment you took the checkered flag, did you feel more joy or relief?
Oh, no. It was all joy. Trust me. But maybe the joy came from a little bit of relief, but I got – shoot, with two or three laps to go, when I started pulling away from Kyle, and I knew that all I had to do was pray that that white flag would come out before the caution, you know, and just put laps together, you know, I mean, I started having all kinds of thoughts and emotions and things, because it was just one of those roller coaster rides today. And it's been a roller coaster ride for the 24 team the last couple of years.
And you know, it just seems like all of that gets bottled up. You work so hard and it means so much; because of those moments and those times when you didn't get the wins. I didn't know what the reaction, what was going on in the crowd. I knew we put on a good race. But I was just – I was just feeling a lot of emotion, because it's just so cool. You know, it's just so cool to get back to winning and that kind of – have a dominating performance like we had today with all of the issues. Just over the off-season, talking to Alan, talking to Rick, with the changes, and just seeing the things that they were doing, I just felt like we were doing the right things. But then we showed up here and qualified 20th and I was like, 'Oh, man, that was a little bit of a letdown.' But when they dropped the green today, I was like, 'Ahh, that's what I thought it would be like.' To pull it off it's awesome, it's a great feeling.
I have to be honest with you, when I did the burnout, which I know wasn't a very good one, because I'm not very good at it; if we win some more, I'll get better at it. And I'm sorry, Rick, I think I hurt the engine or something because I spun around there and it would not start up again. (Laughter) But I got out of it down there in the grass, and I looked up, and I mean, I didn't see an empty spot.
And then I was like, that's cool and I mean, I was feeling the emotions but to see them react like that. And then the push truck pushed me around and to see them all the way down doing that, I was like, I don't know if I've ever experienced something like that. And that to me made it all worth it right there to have that feeling.
Q: Did you cry at all?
Well give me your definition of cry. There were no tears. The chin was shaking. I had to check myself. You've seen the boo-hooing. There was no boo-hoo crying. When I saw my wife, because you know, she has not been able to experience all of the wins.
And so you know, to go through a lot of things with her and the conversations that we've had, when I saw her, I knew that that was going to get me. So that got me a little bit.
And then seeing Rick that, got me a little bit. When I saw him, I was just excited. That was just cool. So you know, I guess when you go that long, and you work that hard, you expect to have that. I do, anyway.
Q: Did the two of you in the off-season do anything to kind of solidify your relationship? I know you guys have known each other for a long time, but to try to get that communication going between the two of you before you actually got into competition, did you guys do anything like that?
I mean, gosh, to me, I was just highly motivated. I mean, the thing happened pretty fast. I think Rick could probably talk about it more than I could. But it happened pretty quick. And I've always admired Alan, always respected him. I go back, probably even when Kyle was driving for us, I remember having conversations with Alan about things that they were doing and I was like, you know, he just – I like the way he talked about things, I like the ideas that he had and the things that they were doing.
And I liked him even more, because this is a young Kyle Busch. That's what we always say around Hendrick Motor Sports, that's a young Kyle Busch. Young Kyle Busch was a handful. I could remember every weekend, they would be fast and he would hit the wall and they would spend most of their time fixing the car in practice. To see him go through, knowing they are building fast racecars, but to be able to handle himself the way he handled those situations with a young Kyle Busch, was impressive.
So I've always admired him. And then when I got a chance to be over there and I came in and he's just business; I mean, here's what we are doing, what we are working on, I've got an idea on seat and dash and we are going to test here and we are going to test here. And I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm on board, man, whatever you need. Whatever you need.'
And to see the whole atmosphere in the shop, that solidified it for me. I didn't think he and I had to have some sit down conversation about, hey, here is how I talk and here is what I do. To me, it was just more about the work that was being put into it.
Q: Alan, you've won with Kyle, you've won with Mark Martin and now you win with Jeff.
Q: It's like you're a troubleshooter. Rick Hendrick can really plug you in anywhere and you can identify whatever's going on, and you seem to have a knack for fixing the issue.
I think it's this practice, because I've won with all three of them here. That's probably the only place that I've done that. To me, to say you've won with Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, I think you're pretty lucky you know what I mean. If I would have won with somebody who has never won, I think that's probably a bigger accomplishment.
I thank Mr. Hendrick for putting me in position to work with drivers of that caliber. There are a lot of people there who are going to work their whole lives and never have opportunities like that. I think it's awesome that I've got those chances and to work with Kyle and Mark and now Jeff, they are three Hall of Fame drivers, arguably three of the best ever to drive these cars, and I'm just ecstatic that I've got those opportunities.
Q: Jeff, in the past you've always talked about how important it is to get a win early in the season, you've been a big proponent of that. Now that you have that off your back what does that allow to you do and how can that help this team move forward and grow that maybe you didn't have that situation last year? Can you compare and contrast that? Forgive me, I don't know if I've heard this story about Cale Yarborough.
All right. Where do I start? What was the first part of your question? I'm somebody who's really big on winning early, and the reason I say that is because to me, there was a lot of pressure on us not just this year winning early but going back the last 66 races that we have not had a win.
So there was a lot of pressure. When you get it out of the way early, what it allows you do, you're already just trying so hard to win, but to have the added pressure of, you have not won in 66 races. You hear it from the media, you hear it from the fans, and it's hard to ignore that. It's on all of us. I think that when you've had the success that we have had in the past – I guess every racecar driver knows that there's going to be that time in their life when they are not going to go to Victory Lane again and you don't know when that time is going to come. I was so hoping that time was not for me now.
I felt like I still have it in me. I know how passionate I am about it. But things have changed in the sport. The cars have changed. Tires have changed. Competition has changed. So when you go through a streak without winning, you think, "OK, is it me or what is it?" Days like today allow you to gain that confidence in yourself, just keep doing what you're doing, what's gotten you to Victory Lane in the past, keep giving that good information and when the tools around you and the chemistry is there throughout the whole team and good decisions are made, days like today will happen.
As far as Cale, when I was racing for Bill Davis in the Nationwide Series, I got a call from Cale. And he asked me if I would test his car at Charlotte, the Phillips '66, I think it was a Pontiac. And I ask Bill Davis because I was sort of under contract at that time, this was before I went to Rick. Actually I think it might have been my first year in Nationwide, not sure exactly when it came out. But I was flattered, thought it was really cool to get the opportunity. And he wanted me to drive his car at North Wilkesboro two or three weeks after that and I said, I'll test for you. And I told Bill that was the deal, can I just test and feel what a Cup car is like? I couldn't race for him, Ford would have had issues anyway. He said go get some experience.
I spun out on the first lap and Schrader came over to me and said, 'I think that thing is bombing out, make sure they raise it up, I think that's why he spun.' So we raced it and I didn't spin the rest of the day. I got that call from Cale, which blew me away and then the interaction with him as a team owner, testing his car, and I'll never forget that moment, that opportunity was something that I was very proud of.
Q: In terms of just the drought, if you want to call it that, how much did that weigh on you?
It has not been fun, I'll be honest with you. Going to the racetrack and being competitive and battling for wins, that's been my whole motivation throughout my career. I've been so fortunate to be in that position to go to the racetrack with a shot at winning races on a pretty consistent basis, and that's what I love about racing. I don't love going out there and finishing 10th or 15th or 20th. I'll be honest, it's depressing and I know that might not come across the right way but when you've won 82 races, and you've worked for Hendrick Motorsports, that pressure is there and there's expectations not only from the outside but the inside.
When you go on that kind of a streak and drought, no doubt about it, it's frustrating. And it has not been a lot of fun going to the racetrack. And today, you know, man, that's what made it so sweet, this victory, is to be able to – it's not like we lucked into it. We battled and we worked and we outraced them and it was just so cool to experience that. It's got me excited about the rest of the season, as well. I think we can do this at other tracks, too.
Q: If I got the numbers right, you had eight runner-up finishes during the win-less drought, curious how the communication between you and Alan today differed than what it did with you and Steve Letarte during crunch time of a race? You were obviously in that situation a lot with Steve, not that one is any better or worse, but how is it different?
I can't say it was a lot different. I mean, today I felt like we had the car to do it. Like the last time we were here, I thought Steve – the last time we had a shot at winning here, I guess a year ago, we had about a fourth or fifth place car that day, and Steve made the call to win the race. It was a great call and I messed it up on the restart. But the conversation wasn't really any different. Now Steve talks more than Alan does. And Alan threw out some things today, like pumping me up and just saying, "Man, we have got Jeff Gordon in the car" and stuff like that. And that's cool.
But we had the car to back that up. I felt like the last time we were in this position, we really didn't, and then I think back to like Martinsville when last year we were coming to the white flag; again that was kind of a pit call. We didn't really have the car. When I think of ones that got away I think of Texas and Vegas last year. We had the car to win the race and it just didn't happen. Just wasn't meant to be I guess. But Steve is a great crew chief. He and I really click. We get along and we are great friends and for whatever reason it just wasn't meant to happen for us. I think he's great for Dale Jr. and those guys are going to do very well together. This is kind of a win-win for all of us. And I just think that it's all about having the right setup with the right car at the right time and today was that.