A Chat With Jeff and Robbie

The fifth race of the Winston Cup season takes place on Sunday at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. David Pearson has won the most races in Darlington history (10) and the late Dale Earnhardt scored nine victories there. Jeff Gordon has won at Darlington Raceway six times - the most of any active driver. He won the Southern 500 last year, and three consecutive races - the fall race in '95 and both rounds in '96. Gordon has led more laps than any other active driver (1299) and has 11 top five finishes in his last 15 starts at Darlington. Gordon and crew chief Robbie Loomis sat down on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming weekend and the season thus far.

Q&A with Jeff Gordon

Do you feel like you're going home to Darlington this weekend?
JG: Well, it's hard to call Darlington 'home,' because that track can just reach out and bite you at any time, but it's certainly been a good one for us. I'm excited that we've come off of a strong finish at Atlanta (2nd) and can carry some momentum to a track that has such good stats for us. I look at this point in the season last year, where we came into some tracks where we coulda, woulda, shoulda capitalized on but unfortunately weren't able to do that. I hope that this time we can make those things different and come out with some great finishes and hopefully a win.

Although it's early in the season to discuss the title, you're currently 8th in points. Are you in a position to make a run at it?
JG: Our first two races weren't spectacular, but they weren't catastrophic. Vegas was definitely one that it will take us a while to make up for. We're glad that we had a strong run at Atlanta. In some ways, we needed that run to get us on track and to gain some points. It's nice being in the top 10 in points now - knowing that we're going to some tracks like Darlington and Bristol and even Texas that were good tracks for us last year. We feel like we can really make some gains on them at some of these tracks coming up.

How has your role as a team owner and mentor to Jimmie Johnson changed your perspective as a racing professional?
JG: I've always believed in the concept of teammates ever since I started working for Rick Hendrick. He's always had multi-car teams and drivers and crew chiefs and members that you've had to work close with. I've always believed in the concept of sharing information. I've always believed the more information you could gather, the more you could share and the better the teams would be. By putting the No. 48 car and the No. 24 car under one roof, the information is so tight and so close that these teams have really bonded. I think they've benefited greatly from one another. I don't really consider myself as a car owner. I really think of myself as the driver of the DuPont Chevrolet, and as just a teammate to Jimmie Johnson. Through my experiences, I've tried to help him more probably off the race track with outside pressures and scheduling - just with what to expect much more away from the race track than what actually happens on the race track. Until he started battling for a championship last year, then I started maybe talking to him. If he had any questions, I'd help answer some questions about what he could do to help himself be in position to win the championship. That's about it.

With a lot of drivers set in their ways and not being able to adjust well to technical changes, how much input do you take from a driver like Jimmie Johnson who is not so set on certain ways of doing things?
JG: That plays a big role. In order to stay in this sport for a long time, you've got to be able to adjust with the times and the technology. When I first came into Winston Cup, you could run the first half the race in sort of a 'save' mode to save tires and equipment. And then you could start running hard and battling for the win the second half. You just can't do that anymore. You just have to run so hard. A lot of it is just the downforce and everything that these cars have now. They can withstand that. Plus, the teams have made the equipment be able to withstand that also. I've definitely learned some things from Jimmie. I think 2000 was a real transition year for me when these set-ups really started changing with big springs, big sway bars, soft front springs, and all these things. I had trouble driving them. At that time, Jerry Nadeau helped me through that a little bit because he wasn't really set in any way. I saw how hard he was pushing and he wasn't using a lot of brakes in the corners. And then that also transformed with Jimmie came along. I just sort of picked up with that because I knew the cars; I knew the set-ups. I was able to look at what he was doing when they were fast. The first half of last year, we weren't really running the same set-ups (as the No. 48) because I just wasn't really comfortable with them. As the year went on, I got more comfortable with them. By the end of the year, we were running much more similar set-ups.

If you are reluctant to embrace new things, will the sport pass you by?
JG: Absolutely. If you're not willing to learn and grown and put your ego aside. Everybody always wants to know who is the best driver. I don't think there is such a thing because there's always somebody newer or better or faster or stronger or smarter. If you're not willing to accept that and allow yourself to get better and learn from others, whether its a young guy coming up or a veteran, you're definitely going to be left behind.

How much bigger is NASCAR today than it was when you started, and how much bigger do you think it can become?
JG: Where I recognize the growth is places I go and people I meet and who is following the sport. Obviously it started in the southeast. But when I came into the sport, it was quickly growing out of that. New race tracks were being built like the one in Texas. As we started to go to these new facilities, it was pretty impressive to see what they'd done with the tracks and condos and the number of seats. You think there's no way to fill them and then they do. You're just blown away. You're amazed. You start going to markets outside the areas that were typically known as the NASCAR fan base. We were just picked up and accepted. It just has continued through NBC and FOX picking up the races. I go places- whether it be in New York City or Los Angeles or even outside of the country- and I'm recognized and people say they love NASCAR and follow it. It's absolutely amazing. You just can't believe how far out we're reaching people. They follow it and enjoy it. That's the only way I know how to put it into perspective.

With all the success you've had at Darlington, which race ranks as your personal best?
JG: I can't think of a race at Darlington where I've not done something wrong. I do think that Darlington is one of those tracks where it's impossible not to make a mistake. But the guy who makes the fewest is the guy that's going to come out with the most success. It is a track that you have to have the utmost respect for. You have to race the race track. No matter how good your car is, it's never going to be perfect in both ends of the race track because of the shape of the track. I know it was a great race for us last year. We had a car that was fast at the beginning of the run as well as at the end of the run. It was certainly one of the best cars I've ever had. I don't know. Obviously the race that stands out the most for me was the one when we won the Winston million several years ago. But that day, I hit the wall. I almost lost the race with Jeff Burton almost passing me on the white-flag lap. But it was certainly one of the most memorable ones for me.

Can you describe some of the new setups and what they feel like?
JG: We're running such soft springs in the front of the car with these big torsion bars. And then the rear of the car is just so stiff. What we've found over the last couple of years is that the mechanical grip underneath the car at some of these bigger tracks has become less important than the actual aerodynamics and downforce that we can put into the car. So, we try to just get the car through with the shocks and springs and sway bars with the right attitude. And what happens is we're getting so much more travel in the front of these cars than we ever have before. So you have to be very careful with the way that you drive the car. If you drive the car hard in the corner and slam on the brakes, the car really wants to spin out. But if you learn how to drive the car- maybe with a little less brake and maybe turning in a little bit later in the corner - the car really has so much more grip and feels so much more comfortable. But it's something that doesn't come easily and something that you have to really work on. When you go from one driving style and one set up (to another), you have to change your driving style as that changes. You have to build your set-up sort of around a certain style that you have because you can't change your style completely. But then you have to learn how to make it work because everybody else is out there making it work.

Do you agree that early season success lies within the teams rather than the makes of cars?
JG: Absolutely. If you look at the teams that were up in the top five at Atlanta, those are all teams that have run well at Atlanta in the past. You have the Gibbs teams, the Hendrick teams, and DEI. If teams have good set-ups and the drivers and crew chiefs work well together at a certain track, then those cars are going to run well whether they are in a Dodge, Pontiac, Ford, or Chevrolet. Just look at Bobby Labonte. He's run well there in Pontiacs and he's running well there in Chevrolets. At certain tracks, I think there is definitely more to the teams than there is to aerodynamics. I'm just a little disappointed that NASCAR didn't take cars to the wind tunnel because I've always said that I'm all about the facts. Show us the facts and then we'll all know where these cars stand.

On this possibly being the final spring race at Darlington
JG: Obviously with my success at Darlington, I would hate to see one of the Darlington races go off the circuit. But, I've always been a big supporter of seeing the sport grow and going to the next level. You look at the crowd at Rockingham - and we'll see what it's like this weekend at Darlington - but there are a couple of tracks in the southeast that the sport is starting to grow to a point that it would be beneficial to everyone involved, including the fans, if it went to a venue in another part of the country in a bigger market. I really don't think that any new track should get more than one date. There are a few more cities out there that we can build some race tracks at that would be great for the sport and pick up new fans. I'd like to see us move into some of those areas. New York City, or near there, would be one of them.

How did driving on dirt factor into your quick success on asphalt?
JG: I think it's funny that I picked it up fast. And I guess back when I got into Winston Cup, it was fairly fast at the time. But now, when I look at what these rookies are doing, they put me to shame. I pretty much spun at almost every race the first half of my rookie season. But I really came on strong the second half of the first year- and especially the second and third years. But I think you should get behind the wheel of any and every race car that you possibly can. You should race small tracks, big tracks, dirt tracks, pavement tracks, flat tracks, and high-banked tracks. The more experience you can get in every type of car and on every type of track you should definitely do it. Sometimes people race in an area and stay in that localized area. You have to know how to get out of that area and grow and be around different competitors and different environments.

With five wins and 2 poles at Bristol, discuss your success there. What about going back after the late race contact with Rusty Wallace last year?
JG: I don't know if it was by accident or not but it was two hungry guys going after a win. I'm looking forward to going back to Bristol. It's definitely one of my favorite tracks. The short tracks have been really good to me over the years and Bristol certainly tops the list. It's just such an awesome and impressive place for the teams, the drivers, the fans, the sponsors, and everybody involved. All of us love going there even though it's almost like playing Russian roulette because you can get caught up in a wreck pretty easily. But it always comes down to an exciting finish and last year's win at the night race was one of the most exciting wins I've had in a long time.

On the quick success of the new driver/crew chief combinations
JG: The thing that I like when you make a change like that is that is brings new life to the team. It sort of gets everybody rejuvenated and fired up. The confidence level steps up. The driver has a lot to do with who the crew chief is; the crew chief has a lot to do with which driver he's going to work with. And so there's excitement there. There's confidence between the driver and the crew chief and that confidence passes down to everybody on the team. It's a big boost. And if you can have success early on in that relationship, it's just going to bring on more success. Unfortunately when Robbie Loomis came on board, we struggled at the beginning and I saw the confidence starting to go down a little bit. Fortunately for us, we brought it back the second half of that year and we stayed strong. And now, the confidence level is great and at an all-time high. If things go well in the beginning, it usually continues to go well.

On Bill Elliott making his 700th start this weekend
JG: The coolest thing is that here's a guy who has been in the sport and who has been successful, you have to really be a smart and talented driver to go through all of the different transitions and technology changes and new competition, and still push the limits of himself and these cars and be healthy enough to stay in the sport that long. It's very impressive.

Q&A With Robbie Loomis

On Jeff Gordon's success at Darlington
RL: It's real impressive. We were talking this morning about his success especially in the Southern 500. He just really has a feel for that place. It's a track where there's not much grip and the tires fall away. I think his ability to relate to the crew chief what you need in the car is probably one of the biggest things that really helps.

Since the teams fly to the tracks in private planes, have you been told that you'll have to change things if the U.S. goes to war in the Middle East?
RL: No, we haven't. I know that became a concern when we went to Dover last year. I'm sure at some of these tracks there will be different restrictions that come up. It's a pretty stressful time on all the folks in the military and their families right now.

Have the new body styles had any impact on the sport so far?
RL: The biggest impact is just the time it takes to build the cars. It takes probably another four days added to the time to build the body. The guys at the fab shop here at Hendrick Motorsports have been working incredibly hard to get the inventory built up. And that's been the toughest part for all the race teams right now with all the new templates and the new body that we have. We have to make the bodies that we have better, but at the same time getting the inventory up.

On the quick success of the new driver/crew chief combinations
RL: If you look over the history of the sport in the last 20 years, you'll find that any time you make a change like that it sparks a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum. That's really what you're looking for. When Roush made the change last year or the year before and basically took this group of guys over here that weren't doing that well with the driver, and switched them with this other set of guys over here. It made each driver step up. It made each crew chief step up. It makes you think harder. It's something you see a lot. You have to be careful that things don't get stagnant. You have to mix things up. I think you see it a lot in football and baseball teams. They're always trading players and changing them out even if a guy is one of the top pitchers or quarterbacks in the league. They reach a point there where they figure it's time to trade. It's good for the quarterback and it's also good for the team.

How difficult is it to change from your usual setups to something new and to re-think that?
RL: It's extremely hard. In 2000, when I came over to Hendrick Motorsports, we had a new Chevrolet body I was trying to learn and that was right about the time when the set-ups really started changing. I had to sit down and I actually read an article on open-mindedness and how you have to be receptive to new ideas and things. It's very hard because you've had success. When we won the championship in 2001, it was very hard the first three or four months of the 2002 season to change very much outside of the box. For myself, I was right in the shop here with Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson. I could see what they were doing with the same cars we had and how they were running a little different set-up. So it gave me confidence when we came around the second time. It's very challenging. The more success you have, the harder it is to change when you come back around. I think that's what ultimately winds up getting you in trouble because these guys that haven't had success have a clean sheet of paper. They're willing to go out there and try anything as far as the race car is concerned.

What is it about NASCAR that has made it grow so much and become so popular?
RL: The drivers forever have been so personal and people really relate to them. There's a lot of connections with the family in the sport. Most all the drivers have their families in the infield. There is a real personable side there that everybody sees."

On Jeff Gordon's success at Bristol
RL: Bristol is a track I have always loved and fortunately I got hooked up with Jeff and he's incredible at that track. Once again, things happen very quick. You turn laps for pole time of 15.10's, 15.08's, and race laps in the high 15's. So, a driver who has great hand/eye coordination and reflexes really comes into play at a race track where things are happenings so quick and that's one of Jeff's greatest assets when it comes to a race track like Bristol.

Are you disappointed that NASCAR didn't take the cars to the wind tunnel and do you think the Ford camp is starting to lobby against the Chevrolets a little too early in the season?
RL: After a track like California or Las Vegas it's going to be a better example. That's where everybody stacks all the front downforce in the car they can. At a track like Atlanta, a lot of times you won't have the full front downforce in the car that you can stand. I think that NASCAR's got a good approach. They want everybody to get stabilized. Being a new body - especially for us with Chevrolet - I know we don't have a great handle on our set-ups. We did hit it pretty good there the other day and pretty good at Vegas. We're gaining on it and I think that's what NASCAR wants. They want all these teams to get stabilized with the new body location and with the new templates that we're having to us. A third of the way, or probably 10 races down the road, they'll probably look at them pretty hard to see where everybody is. It's one of those situations this year where there's just not as many gray areas for the cars to be that different. If somebody has come up with something that's better, they should be able to go race it."

What does it feel like to be on the pit box making calls?
RL: It's like having a big tractor sitting on your shoulders (laughs). It's actually great- especially with Jeff, who stays very calm and in control of his emotions. He can help you get the car to where you need to be. That's one of the things we were talking about Sunday in the trailer when we were starting 30th. There have been many occasions on Saturday when we haven't had the best Happy Hour or the best practice. But through a 500-mile race on Sunday, we've been able to adjust the car and communicate well enough to get the car to Victory Lane at the end of the day. So that's a very comforting feeling from that side too.

On the nine blown engines during the Atlanta race
RL: That was one of my concerns. I think I was the most nervous guy in the place when Jimmie Johnson's engine let go there with about 25 laps to go. But we did look at everything and I know Randy Dorton (engine builder) have tore into it. I don't want to say they've drawn some conclusions, but I think they're closing in on what the problem was. I think for Darlington, we'll have everything corrected. But you know, Atlanta has always been a real tough track on engines. Roush lost about four, so I think they're hurt pretty bad over there too.

When you look at hiring a crew chief, do you look for somebody with the special background like chassis or aero, or do you look for compatibility with the driver?
RL: The number one thing we look at is the personality (of the crew chief) and the personality of the driver and what kind of character the guy has. Once you've established that, then you fall back and look at what areas can the guy bring some strength into. But the number one thing is the right-fit personality and character because there's a much bigger thing here than just getting a fender right or just getting the right camber in the right front. It's all very important, but (personality) is probably the bigger order that we look at first.

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