Jeff Gordon ended a 66-race win-less streak by beating Kyle Busch to victory in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix. Afterward, he and longtime team owner met with the media.
Q: Rick, congratulations. You had to be really, really happy for that car and the race organization today.
"You know, someone said it a little while ago; I think it was like our first win. Jeff was so happy, and we made a lot of changes in the off-season. He really drove his butt off today. To come out and run Kyle down, and you know, have Jimmie and Tony and all of those guys up there, I think he had something he wanted to prove. And it was a great win for the organization."
Q: Can you talk about the humility of Jeff, even after he, as you said, drove his butt off, then on the radio says, "I just beat Kyle Busch." He's still taken aback and here is a guy who is a four-time champion.
"I think, you know, when you talk about your pre-year ticks, and he's mentioned in the Chase, but not a guy who's going to win the championship. And you pick the top three – and I think it's been 60-some races since he won I think he had something he wanted to prove. Came close last year and had terrible luck at the end. When you're a champion like Jeff Gordon, you know that you can still do it. When people overlook you, I think it's something that he wanted to do and wanted to prove.
"I'll tell you one of the neatest things was to see the fans, to see their reaction to him today was unbelievable. He mentioned that over and over and over again in Victory Lane. I think, you know, he's been right there, but we have not – he has not had that edge and I think we are going to see a lot of momentum out of that team starting right now."
Q: Jeff is not a young guy anymore. Do you think he still has what it takes to be a champion? Do you think it may be is a year that he finally can get that fifth title?
"I really do. When you look at the restrictor plate races, there's nobody any better than he is. He's unbelievable on the short tracks, and this track here today, I think the fact that we did not qualify that well, but he thought the car was going to be good, and as soon as the race started today, I looked at the monitor and he was one of the quickest cars before a lot of – Carl [Edwards] and some of the other guys got taken out.
You know, the guy has got all the talent in the world, and you know the calendar rolls on, everybody thinks he's got to be a young guy to do well. Mark Martin has proved that that's not the case in '09. Jeff has paid a lot of attention to what he eats and working out and I think Jimmie has started a whole revolution in the garage with guys getting in shape.
But you've got to look at some of the most difficult tracks there are to drive and you look at how good he is there. I think this combination, I think we needed to do something to rejuvenate our whole group, and I think I see every one of our guys stepping up. And I think Jeff sees this as an opportunity with Alan [Gustafson, crew chief] that he's got something to prove and I think that's a good thing."
Q: You made the announcement, if not the decision, to realign the drivers and crews last year; at any time prior to Daytona or this weekend with the qualifying problems, was there a, "Hmm, did I make the right move?" moment?
"You know, when you make the decision and then it's up to the guys to make it work, and you know, I didn't do it all by myself. But this organization is really one team of four cars. People say that sometimes and don't really mean it, but these guys work shoulder to shoulder. I think the chemistry and just the – when you look at the DNA of all of them; Dale needed Steve because he's a real rah-rah guy who stays with him all during the race. I looked at Lance as a technician and that's what Mark is, and they have won together.
"And then Alan and Jeff; Jeff's always had tremendous respect for Alan, and has always talked about having Alan. And then we just – the 48 and Chad we left alone. It's early; by summer, you might be telling me I made a terrible mistake but right now the chemistry looks really good in the teams and we are competitive every week. We were competitive in Daytona and we were competitive here today even though we did not qualify that great.
Q: Were there times over the last two years that you sensed Jeff was down and he would come talk to you, or you would talk to him, and say, hey, we are going to get this back, and was there some real low moments for him over the last two years?
"As proud as he is of Jimmie, and as responsible as he is for helping make that happen, you know, Jimmie has for five in a row, he's got a lot of people in this garage kind of disgusted; not disgusted, but after you win two or three or four and being on the same team in the same building with the same equipment, you know it's got to work on you.
"I think he's a competitor, he's a champion, and you know, everybody gets down. I get down. We all get down. And you have to have some reason to get excited again, and that's what this realignment this year was all about. Let's spark to give everybody something new to look forward to without really going outside of the walls and changing, bringing someone in we weren't accustomed to, because I felt like everybody there was capable and really good in their own way. But this might be a way to get us, everybody excited about coming back this year.
Q: Did you feel that your organization was down at all after the qualifying effort yesterday, and can you comment on Dale Jr.'s 10th-place finish.
"I don't know about them but I was sure down after I got off the plane yesterday afternoon. I talked to them and they said, we are pretty good, we are good in race trim, the car feels good. We just didn't have the speed and I think we'll be OK today. You never know. As soon as the race started, I could watch Jeff in particular and Jimmie was pretty quick, too, but Jeff was really faster even than Carl, which I thought looked like was going to be the class of the field.
"And I can tell you, Dale Jr. has done everything. He was in position in Daytona to really compete and win that race and had a flat tire with two to go. He did not qualify good here. None of them did. But he drove a great race and he never gave up, and when he had to pit with a loose wheel, Stevie made some good calls and came back with a top-10 finish. So to pit on the green here with less than a hundred laps to go and come back with a 10th-place finish, you've had a good day."
Q: Every year it seems like some of your guys start slow and we say, there's something wrong with Jimmie, Jeff, something wrong and August comes around and you go through the championship Chase and blow everybody away. You say you were worried and everybody is saying the Hendrick cars are a little off right now; is it part of the game to be slow starters and fast finishers?
"The problem is that you've got a lot of guys out here. If you remember the last race here on this pavement, Denny Hamlin dominated the race, and he probably brought the same car back here, but I can tell you, we went and we have tried and we have got a lot of new stuff here. I was of the opinion, swallow hard, this is the first race here, and if we are not good and we tried and tested and we thought this was better than what we had; if it's not, we just have to keep working to make it better. You just – it's just so competitive. When you go back to a track where a guy has dominated and then they are a 10th-place car, that just shows you that the competition, they are not sitting on their hands.
"They are working their butts off, and I think Alan can tell you, the difference between the race we ran here in the fall and what we brought back here today was a ton of difference. But there's a lot of hard work and you're always searching because the rest of the guys are getting better."
Q: You mentioned the fan reaction to Jeff's victory, and obviously there's been a lot of talk over the last couple of years about some of the challenges that NASCAR has faced when it opened this season, Dale Jr. on the pole at Daytona and Trevor Bayne's victory appealing to the youth market, seats sold out and ratings up and now a Jeff Gordon victory. Do you have the sense that NASCAR has turned the corner and is back on an upswing?
"Absolutely. I think the 18- to-30 viewership was up 40 percent, and our sponsors look at that. That big crowd in Daytona; Trevor, a great young kid who's going to be a star in this sport, to win the Daytona 500 for the Wood brothers, is a phenomenal deal. Dale sitting on the pole.
"The fans are excited; that you see the stands full and you see it with the ratings, too, and I think – I've been doing this 28 years, and this is the most competitive, by far, that I have ever seen this sport. When I started, you had to beat four cars to win a race and you had to beat two or three to win a championship. And today, there's 20 cars that can win a race, and probably 30. You are not going to know who is going to be the champion until we get to the last race of the year. It's just that much, that competitive.
"I told someone the other day, the equipment in the garage, there's more equipment on one team than the whole garage as far as top-notch stuff when I started this sport. I think we had positive momentum at the end of the year. I think the sport and the drivers are all working together to make it a better show for the fans – and I think we've got it."