A Nightime Magician

BRISTOL, TN.- - Jeff Gordon passed Rusty Wallace with three laps remaining to win the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was Gordon's first victory of the season and 59th of his career. Following the race he sat down for a Q&A with the media.

Were you so hungry for a win that you would have done almost anything?
"Pretty much. I think the opportunity presented itself and reminded me a lot of the one time when I passed Rusty here kind of the same way when we came up on lapped traffic. We were both pushing the cars extremely hard. Every once in a while we both would get really sideways up off the corner. And he got sideways. I think he was trying to pass somebody. And I jumped up there on him, went to make a move and he shut the door on me. After that I was glued to his bumper and he didn't have to do much for me to be there and give him a little tap. It is Bristol and I was really hungry. I wanted to get to that victory lane bad and we did. We achieved what we wanted to and got to victory lane. Never done it as a night race. It might be a little controversial, but I don't care. I'm just glad to be sitting right here right now. I think that anybody else in that position would have pretty much done the same thing. I got moved out of the way a couple of times tonight by some guys and it wasn't even at the end for the win. I can only imagine what would happen at the end for the win."

Rusty said that Joe Nemechek played a part because he wouldn't get out of his way.
"I don't remember. I don't know who the car was. The thing that Nemechek could've done to help me was to get up high and just move over so both of us could just battle it out. I don't think there was any intention or any plans there. I just think that it just however you catch lapped traffic and how it works out for you. It definitely held him up and allowed me to really close the gap. Lapped traffic plays a big role here. Had that not happened I don't know if I could've gotten him, unless he made a mistake and came up on lapped traffic, held him up, some bobble a little bit. I was on him."

You and some other drivers have become technicians at this kind of move (bump passing). What's going to be judged to be proper, what goes too far?
"He didn't hit anything, so I thought that was proper. I don't know. You don't think about that at the time. You're just racing as hard as you can. At a short track like Bristol or Martinsville, if you can get to the rear bumper and give him a light tap it's going to happen. You expect it to happen to you and they should expect to have it happen to them, especially in the closing laps. I don't think there are two guys out there that are more hungry than me and Rusty right now. He hasn't won in a while and I hadn't won in a while. Both of us came on a mission. He tested here real well. We sat on the pole and felt like we missed an opportunity the last time we were here. You see yourself that close and you like, Oh, my gosh, I do not let this opportunity get away. And as soon as he bobbled all I knew was that I was going to get my bumper as close to his as possible and if I touched him I touched him. I didn't go in there just letting off the brakes, just trying to slam into him. I just went in there and just waited to see what would happen. You get up on a guy that close, even though we're going 100 miles an hour here, it's still affects the cars."

When you moved him, the grandstands erupted in cheers. Does that kind of move give you a "tough-guy" image?
"I don't know. It would be unusual to know that they were cheering. Maybe it was sympathy. I don't know. I just think the fans here at Bristol love to see an exciting race. They love to see the bumping and the banging and the fast pace. They're fired up here; the lights are on. It's electrifying, as much for the drivers as it is for the fans. I think that their wish is that it comes down to a Rusty/Jeff battle to the finish and some bumping and banging going on. They eat that stuff up. I think if I hadn't done that they probably would have booed me."

How much was the losing streak wearing on you?
"I don't think the losing streak was wearing on me as much as just maybe missed opportunities or not being able to capitalize on some good cars that we've had. I know that if this team is in position at the end of the race, if we're in the top four or five week in and week out we're going to win races. And we had not put ourselves in that position. That got frustrating. It wasn't so much that we weren't winning. I think the lack of DNFs and team moral kept the glue together. If these guys started thinking twice about being on our team, thinking twice and pointing fingers at one another the whole thing would have fallen apart. I cannot tell you what this is going to do, though. It's not like everybody is walking around with big smiles on their faces. They knew that they just needed to stick together and they did. A win and this type of exciting weekend for us, it's going to do a lot for us. We're really excited about getting to Darlington."

Was this a tough race even for Bristol?
"Gosh, I thought they were all (tough). I was pretty fortunate to be up front most of the night. I know that it gets tougher to pass here every time we come back, It doesn't matter where we go, if it's tough pass you're going to see guys moving guys out of the way either with air or with the bumper. And anytime you go to a place where you have to do that you're going to see cautions, you're going to see wrecks. I thought that that's pretty much characteristic of this place. It does seem to get tougher to pass each time we come back."

How big is this win?
"I just think it's so big, period. It feels like the first one all over again. I can tell you we do not take wins for granted. These things are hard to come by and we appreciate them and that moment there in victory lane I wanted to pause it and burn it into my memory forever because it's just such an awesome, awesome feeling too. There's just no other high in the world like it to be able to experience that and to see the look on these guys' face and the excitement in their voice. I don't know how to describe it; it's just big. As far as the championship, I think it just kind of serves notice to a lot of people that we're not out of it, don't count us out. That when things go our way, like they did tonight, we are going to be able to stay on top of things and get to victory lane."

Was there a point in the season when you didn't think you would get back in this thing?
"I still think we've got some work to do at the superspeedways. This is a short track. I think we kind of separate that from a lot of other tracks. I'm looking forward to going to Darlington. We were good at Darlington the last time we were there. I'm excited about getting back there. I'm not saying that now suddenly we're just going to run away with it. We still got a lot of hard work left ahead of us. I think this is just such a great step in the right direction. It's going to do so much for the team morale. And sometimes the whole morale and attitude can take you up several notches performance-wise. I know it's going to do a lot for my confidence. Nobody's working harder out there to win races every weekend and to do everything to be championships at the end of this year. We know we're not out of it at all. Never have counted ourselves out of it. But we just knew that if we were going to be a threat we got to start performing. Hopefully this is the first step to that."

Based on what you said after the race, does this mean war with Rusty?
"Does anybody remind him of Richmond a couple of years ago? He didn't hit the wall. I hit the wall hard."

What do you do next? Do you talk to him or do you just watch your back out there?
"If he wants to pay me back, if that's the way he wants to go about it. I've been knocked around, I've been moved out of the way, and I've been wrecked. I go to the next race, focus on what I've got to do, not taking guys out and doing paybacks. Rusty and I, we've been racing for a while. It's the heat of the moment, what do you expect him to say? He's going to be upset, he lost the race and he wanted it as bad as I did. I don't expect him to be happy. We may talk, we may not talk. We'll just kind of go to Darlington and see what happens. I'm not calling him. He didn't call me. But we've become much closer and better friends over the years. I think that he and I both have respect for one another and know how we can race with (each other)."

Nobody talked about the aero push here this week.
"It's not down the straightaways, it's just in the corners. It's everywhere. You could feel it tonight. That's why the passing was so hard to do. We've got a harder tire yet we're going through the corners faster than we ever have. Anytime you increase the corner speeds you're going to increase the demands of the aerodynamics. It's everywhere."

They're talking about installing lights at Darlington. Could you stand two night races back to back?
"Absolutely. I love the night races. I love coming in on a Friday, and qualifying, practice and getting these guys a day at home on a weekend, it's so nice. These guys work so hard. I've always liked races at night, ever since I was racing quarter midgets. I'm all for it. It's important to make sure they do the proper lighting and do it right, because Darlington is a tricky place during the day and you want to make sure there are no shadows. I think it would be a positive in many ways for them. I think it would be a good investment."

Other drivers have gone through winless streaks. Does this win give you a new perspective on winning?
"I had one prior to tonight. I don't know if I've ever taken them for granted. I can tell you when you win six, eight, 10 races in a season, it's not the same. It's a different feeling. When you go as long as we've gone without a win and you realize just how hard it is and how hard you work for them, and just how everything's got to fall in place to get there, you look back and go, How in the world did we win 58 races? When it's meant to be, it's meant to be. And tonight it was meant to be for us. We certainly are appreciative to be there and hope someday to get that opportunity to get back there some weekend."

How surprised were you when Kyle Petty ran into you in turn one? Also, did you think it was your night when you missed that big wreck?
"Talking about Kyle. What happened was that we came up to lap Kyle and in the driver's meeting they asked everybody to go high, lapped cars to go high and lead lap cars to go low. It's one thing if you just stay in your groove and stay in your line. But all of a sudden he moved down to the bottom to force everybody to go to the outside and I just thought that was uncalled for. It made it extremely difficult to pass him. I almost got past because I had to pass him on the outside. I went to the inside one time and he ran me down low. That's not like Kyle. I love Kyle and I love racing with him, but if a guy works with me I'm going to work with him. When it came time to give him his lap back I guess he was just expecting me to move over. I wasn't going to do that. I don't agree with the whole giving laps back anyway. But if a guy works with me I'm certainly going to work with him. After that happened, I said, All right, if he cuts me a break on the restart I'll help him get his lap back. And I tried to; it just didn't work out. It looked to me like he was trying to pass me. I eased up too. You never know with Rusty. That whole wreck happened on the front straightaway and he passed the cars. I didn't know what he was doing. I was trying to let up and then I saw him coming and so I had to get back on the gas. I thought Kyle still got his lap back, but I guess he didn't. I was also trying to give Jimmie his lap back right then. I had every intention to try to make it happen."

How much does it mean to finally win the Bristol night race?
"Just like the poll that I saw the other day. What races does everybody want to go to? It's overwhelming that people want to come to the night race at Bristol. Everywhere I go you hear people saying that either they've been to it and said how exciting it was or they hoped that one day they got to come here. Just to walk out and see this place, you're just in awe when you see that many people sitting in the grandstands around a bullring half-mile race track like this. It's very special. This guy sitting next to me right here (crew chief Robbie Loomis), he's been telling me ever since he came to Hendrick Motorsports, 'I'd love to get me one of them big Bristol trophies.' We're pretty excited about finally getting him that one. He got me a night race, what did we get for you, Rick (Hendrick, team owner)? All in one. I didn't tear that thing up too bad, did I?"

How do you keep the team focused? You were confident coming in here.
Robbie Loomis: "The confidence, that's one thing I felt would be so quick to lose it, but it takes so long to gain confidence. Jeff has really been the one all year that's been the calmer one that calms the waters, soothes us. Whether it would be a bad practice or a bad race, he said, Hey, we've been on this win(less) streak and everybody is freaking out, I was freaking out. He said, Hey, we sat down in December. We didn't talk about winning races. We talked about winning the championship and winning rookie of the year. He kept us looking at that goal of what we were working towards and that kind of calmed us for a little bit."

There was a note?
Robbie Loomis: "The note had to do with.... everyone knows that I'm real tight with the Pettys; I love the Pettys to death. And they didn't understand why we weren't giving them the lap back. I'd go over there tomorrow and mow their grass if they called me to help make up for it. They sent a note back, saying they understood, he's trying to protect his lead. That's just racing."

On the confidence.
Robbie Loomis: "You got to tell yourself that, you got to believe. We had a great car in the last race and actually when Jeff and I were in the lounge after the Michigan race he scared me to death because he said the last time at Bristol we sat on the pole, we led laps. If we don't go up there and crush them this time we're in trouble. And I knew he was going to be the driver, so I knew I was the one that was in trouble."

You also come here without aerodynamic concerns. Did that help your confidence? Does the same thing apply at Darlington?
Robbie Loomis: "Darlington is a big race track. The thing we have going for us there is that track is so wore out that the mechanical grip became such a big important part of it. After you've run 10 laps on tires then really the mechanical part takes over. Handling is the key at all these race tracks. The aero tight is increasingly harder and harder to deal with. Even though it wasn't a good outcome at the Michigan race we learned a lot of things with that nosekick and I think going into Darlington we'll have a little head-start there."

JG: "I think one of the key things for us this weekend was qualifying and we've got to qualify better. Darlington's a place that we qualify good at. I think we can overcome some of the aerodynamic thing that we have been dealing with if we qualify well there. We're going to be working real hard on Friday to get a good starting position, not that we're not working hard everywhere. I think it just proved to us this weekend how important it is."

Was your confidence lacking?
JG: "I've never really lost confidence that I felt like what I was looking for and what I needed as a feel that I could win. Maybe it was just a little more pep in my step, just a little added confidence. I don't think it's as much as driving and the team, it's just whether or not it's all supposed to happen and meant to happen. You go through times when you work just as hard and doing everything the same and it's just not happening. You just start to question a lot of things. My confidence in my driving I don't think that I ever really questions that. I think it's just going to put a smile on my face. Maybe that's all that I needed."

Was this a typical Jeff Gordon performance?
Rick Hendrick: "I think any of you that's watched Jeff over the years has been impressed during different races how he worked traffic or found the hole or be patient or not race Dale Jr early on in the race, but tonight was a classic Jeff Gordon race. The car was a little tight in the center at a point where he didn't want to overreact and adjust it. He just wanted to deal with what he had. He was thinking about 10 and 15 and 20 laps ahead of where we were in the race. It was as textbook Jeff Gordon race as I've seen in all the years we've been together. The car was perfect, maybe not perfect. It was awfully good. Robbie gave him and awful good car. It was just the moon was right and he was right tonight."

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