When are you going to retire so the No. 24 car can start winning more races and get more championships? You're not getting the job done. One win in three years – that's pretty sad. A change is in order.
Well, nice question to get started with! Frank, I appreciate your support of the 24 team if you think that my retirement would help them out that much, and I'm disappointed that you disagree with how I run the team. I agree our performance hasn't been up to par the last three years, but we've had a substantial improvement this season, and although we're substantially behind in the win column, I feel in 2010 we've had cars capable enough and pit decisions smart enough to win. In a sport as competitive as the NASCAR Sprint Cup, giving yourself a car good enough to win as frequently as we've managed this season is all you can ask for. However, I agree that it's time we broke through and got to Victory Lane.
Ray Evernham stated in an interview following the race in Texas that the communication between you and Jeff is at 95 percent; he asserted that you may feel too intimidated to tell Jeff the obvious such as, “Don't speed on pit road; don't spin your tires on the restart; be patient with this traffic, don't be hasty and save your tires.” He also stated that because of the daunting task of working with a four-time champion that you do not hold your ground on certain decisions. Are these claims true? Do you feel intimidated into not telling Jeff the obvious?
Personally, Steve, I feel that you are the smartest crew chief in the sport, I can tell that there are times that you have the lap times and, based on your data, you do not want to adjust the car, but I observe that you change your mind when Jeff suggests an adjustment. He may know the feel of the car, but lap times are what count; when you have the data saying that the car is quick, don't back down Steve, and don't second-guess yourself. This CoT has a fickle chassis, so if you don't need to adjust it, DON'T!
Brian, I think that Ray has raised a very good point – he's a good friend and a remarkable talent in the sport, and I do think looking back on some of the races, I could have given Jeff more detail about the car. Jeff and I are close friends and I don't find him very intimidating at all, to be honest. It's just that sometimes I assume a veteran – and a massively successful one – doesn't need reminding of the small stuff, although yeah, it probably is my duty to do so.
The second half of the question is more about the redirection of the team. For a lot of years, Jeff's opinion was the No. 1 thing that counted because he had such a remarkable feel, and I agree that with the CoT we do need to put a little less value on Jeff's opinion and a little more value on the speed of the car. That's what you're seeing so far this year, and Richmond was a great example. Jeff was complaining as if he had a 20th-place car – and we were leading the race!
Brian, I appreciate your input, and I think you're spot on: as the season goes on, you'll see that the car adjustments might reflect more of the timing and scoring and a little less of the driver input.
Obviously Jeff and Jimmie have had their run-ins at a couple of recent races. What was the atmosphere like between you and Chad Knaus? And what about the crews?
First, I'd like to say that by no means do we want to take the fire out of our drivers. We like the intensity. We would prefer it wasn't always dealt one to the other, but I'd rather we had that than none at all. I think it got a little out of proportion through the media because we're a front-running team, but Chad and I are great friends, although we're very competitive and want to beat each other but we also know very, very clearly that the strength of one of our teams owes a lot to the other. The 48 team wouldn't be as strong without the 24 team, and vice versa. It's very important that we keep the shop karma – the crew guys are very professional and don't pick sides. They intermingle very well and I think we'll move past this and continue to win in the future.
I couldn't believe how it all turned on its head for 24 at Talladega. Is there anything more you could have done or will that pack racing always be a crap shoot?
Good luck. You boys really deserve it after the season you've had.
Well, welcome to Talladega, Ray! There's nothing you can do to change the outcome of those races. We ride around in the back if we get shuffled there, but at some point it's time to go, and I think Jeff chose his timing very well. Jimmie did what any driver would have done, which is trying to get in front of a train that was coming. That put us on the apron, we got shuffled to the back and then our luck was very poor: the 31 car had its accident on the tri-oval part, we had nowhere to go and that kinda ended our day. But I can't argue both sides of the story: I can't pretend I wanted the cars all strung out just because I want the team to be a success. I'm a race fan: I like side-by-side action, it's wonderful to watch, and I hope the fans really enjoyed Talladega being exciting again in a way that last November's race wasn't. In sum, the competitor in me isn't a fan of Talladega-style racing, but our job is to entertain the fans and I think they got entertainment in Talladega last month.Does Jeff left-foot brake and how common is that among NASCAR drivers?
Yes, Harriet, Jeff is a left-foot braker and I'd say that almost the whole field is now, although one holdout might be Bobby Labonte. It started with the coil-bound front-end package and now with the bump stops, the front end of the car is so sensitive that you need to be using both pedals a lot of the time. Drivers don't get out of the gas until they apply the brake, and they don't get off the brakes until they're applying the gas – the rolling time is minimal. They're keeping the car balanced with the brake even as they're accelerating. I'd say 99 percent of the successful NASCAR drivers in the last decade have been left-foot brakers. On road courses, people like Boris Said and Robby Gordon will right-foot brake but using a technique called heel-and-toe, so they're braking with their heel and accelerating with their toe, and using the left foot for the clutch. But there's not an oval on our schedule where the drivers won't be leaving it in top, so there's no need for using the clutch, so the left foot can operate the brake.
I've been a fan of Jeff for 15 years now, and it's great to see him get that fire back. Did he change his attitude in the off-season? I can't believe it's all about car setup. He looks like a real aggressive young buck right now – and us fans of 24 are loving it! Keep up the good work. Your day will come.
Roger, I can confirm that he changed his attitude in the off-season, because so did the whole team. I don't know which came first, but Jeff and I had a lot of very honest and heated discussions over the winter about where the team was, where we expected it to be and how best to get there. A lot of those meetings were personal and private and don't need to be discussed, but what came out of them was a new-found desire from both Jeff and myself that has trickled through the team. The team wants to win. We were very good at being consistent, but being consistent is not what this sport is about anymore, it's not what The Chase is about. It's about winning races and leading laps and when we looked each other in the face, and then looked in the mirror, we decided that's what we needed to do. I think both Jeff and myself have found some fire and focus about going out and winning races and not just worrying about running good.
I guess it's no one's business but yours and Mr. Hendrick, but I saw Chad Knaus and Alan Gustafson re-upped their contracts. Have you done the same? I hope so, because I feel this year you've been re-proving yourself, and only bad luck and bad teammates' driving has kept you out of Victory Lane four or five times now. I even think your Vegas call was what many people would have done in your position, so don't listen to the critics!
You were polite enough to say that it's a private matter, Marc, but actually…it is and it isn't! When you become a sports figure, you realize those things are in the public domain to an extent. Chad's contract was done obviously because Lowe's had re-signed and Jimmie had re-signed, so he was the third piece of that puzzle. And Alan's was next because with the Kasey Kahne signing, it was very important for Alan to know that he'd be on the No. 5 car and that he's a great talent who we all want to be there. As for me, I've had phone conversations with Rick and he's let me know his intentions to have me as crew chief for the 24 – and obviously that's what I want to be! So I'd expect nothing to change, and hopefully we can get the paperwork done. I've worked at Hendrick Motorsports since 1995, and that's a long time, so if Rick gives me his word, that's really all I need. My wife would disagree, because she's an employment attorney, so she's a contract type of woman, but I'm a simple kinda guy and I believe Mr. Hendrick wants me to be there and I want to be there. So I'm expecting the paperwork to get done over the summer and that I'll be there for many years to come.
Green-white checker: Good or Bad idea? I think it makes a lot of drivers behave like idiots in the final laps because they know they might get another chance.
Also, if Hendrick was allowed to take a fifth car and you had the choice of who'd be employed, which driver and which crew chief would you go for? In other words, out of the guys not in HMS, who do you most respect in your position and in Jeff's position?
First point: Green-White-Checkers. I'm going to take an on-the-fence answer to this, Terry, because they're the rules! They're not a fly-by-night rule, they're not something that got decided halfway through a race, or in the drivers' meeting one Sunday morning. I think the GWC finish ensures the fan gets his money's worth. He or she is there to watch a good show. It's no different than baseball: When someone has a three-run lead after the eighth, you don't just call it because you assume they're going to win. You play through all nine innings and you never know what might happen. It's the same sort of thing in racing: we want to finish the race under green. The fan has paid good money to watch us race all 500 miles. As a competitor, it's frustrating because it can change the outcome of a race, but we know that from the start so if your car doesn't work on the restart, there's no one to blame but yourself.
The second part of your question, at the risk of sounding like I'm taking the politically correct route here, is that we do already have five drivers, because I think Mark Martin is a fabulous talent, and our newly signed driver Kasey Kahne is absolutely remarkable. I've seen what he can do in a racecar, and I can't wait to see what he can do with Hendrick Motorsports equipment – I don't know if he's driven anything with as much power as Hendrick Chevrolet units! If I had my choice, I'd bring Kenny Francis with him if we were running five programs, because I think he's brilliant and has never had as much help as he would at a place like ours. Unfortunately, for Kenny, I don't know what his situation is for next year, because between Chad, Alan, Lance and myself we have our four crew chief positions covered. But I'm certain a man of Kenny's talents will land on his feet.Jeff mentioned something at the end of the Richmond race about having the best car on the long runs, but not on the shorter ones. I guess this makes it tough under green-white-checker rules. So is it possible to have a car that's good for both? Have you noticed any other cars that are good for both?
We do have an opportunity to have a car that's good for both. What we are looking for, though, is when you know you're going to have a short run and you come and get that last set of tires. Then you'll change your air pressures around to make sure the car is good for a short run. Our problem at Richmond was that our last stop was under green with roughly 35 laps to go. So we altered our air pressures a little, but not enough for a two- or three-lap run; we were still hoping for a 20-lap run. But what made us feel good about ourselves was that we asked Jeff about this on the phone conference this week and he said we had it right. When we left pit road under green, he says the car was doing everything he wanted it to do. It couldn't have been better. That gives us confidence that we made the adjustment that was needed, but the problem is that, in the whole track-position game, we couldn't pit and take tires yet again and for that reason we were stuck with the air pressures we had and they weren't quite good enough for a five-lap shootout.
So you can have it good, but not as perfect as you'd like to have it. As dominant as our 24 car was on the long runs in the second half of that race, I'll take that any day, and acknowledge that we'll just have to do our best in the event of a green-white-checker finish. We still had the 31 [Jeff Burton] and 29 [Kevin Harvick] cars beat on a short run. The only one we couldn't beat on the short run was the 18 of Kyle Busch, and, unfortunately, he was the guy lined up next to us on that final run.
What's worse: missing Victory Lane because your car sucked, or missing Victory Lane because you got unlucky with a mechanical/crash/tire when you had the car to beat?
Personally, I cannot stand having a non-competitive car. When you have a car that doesn't stand a chance of winning the race, there's nothing that frustrates me more because I know we have all the tools and all the talent at Hendrick Motorsports to go and lead every single race. So without a doubt, being short on speed is the most frustrating feeling you can have. Having said that, when you have a car that could have won a race but it has a mechanical, it just eats at your stomach because you wonder when you will next have a car that is so good. What made Vegas so disappointing in the spring, when we took right-side tires only and needed to take four, wasn't so much that we lost but we wondered, “When will be that good again?” So to rebound at Texas and have a car that dominant again really helped us put Vegas behind us and we really cannot wait to get to these other 1.5-mile tracks.
But, of course, we've led 599 laps and not gotten a win yet. We've led 599 of the wrong laps!
I am a huge fan of Jeff Gordon's and of Hendrick Motorsports and have been for many years. I have seen many crew chiefs come and go with Jeff and was happy to see you become his crew chief. I think you are doing a fantastic job and hope the great work continues. My question is, when you first started you were heavier but every week you seem to be getting thinner and I was wondering what your secret is as far as diet, exercise, etc. Keep up the good work personally and professionally.
I'd like to say it's stress, but actually, like racing, there is no secret. The 24 pit crew last year was good, but not as good as it could be, so I spent all winter long working out with my pit crew, getting to know them, and I now think they're as good as anyone on pit road this year. So I've been eating better, working out much more, and spending quality time with my pit crew. I'll be honest: Our team always struggles in the second half of the year and I wanted to make sure that my physical fitness wasn't going to contribute to that, so I made a commitment to get in shape to make sure I was energized and ready to go throughout the long NASCAR season. I've lost 58lbs, so I hope RACER finds a portrait of the new skinny me to go with this column…Thanks for all your questions and keep them coming! Just e-mail email@example.com.