A Late Summer Chat

(August 27)- - Jeff Gordon and crew chief Robbie Loomis held a media teleconference to discuss the upcoming Southern 500 race weekend at Darlington Raceway. After a six race stretch where he has averaged a 25th place finish, Gordon and his team head to Darlington searching for a victory as he trails points leader Matt Kenseth by more than 500 points.

JG: "Obviously, I love Darlington. We're definitely looking forward to going back there- especially because of the way things have been going for us the last three or four weeks. It's been frustrating on one side where the finishes haven't come the way we'd like them to. But at the same time, the performance of the cars and of the team have been going good. We've just really got to get some things going our way. The last time we were at Darlington, things look like they were going our way until late in the race. I brushed the wall, which is so easy to do at that place. So, I'm looking forward to going back there and trying to get back to Victory Lane and have a car like we had last time and to keeping it out of the wall."

How do you deal with the lows of the past few weeks and going to a track that's known for difficulty even though you've had success there?
JG: "I believe, and I think our team believes, that running fast and having good race cars and qualifying up front are much harder to fix than trying things go your way. A lot of things are out of our control and we just try to control the things that are in our hands. And that's just putting the best race cars we can out there. Even though we haven't had results over the past four weeks - other than the Brickyard - the performance has been awesome as far as I'm concerned. We've had two poles and have led a bunch of laps. We've just got to go to the next one and hope it goes our way."

Cale Yarborough said you should have to win six to tie his five Southern 500 wins because his were on the "old" Darlington track. What is your response to that?
JG: "I say give me a shot this weekend. I've seen a lot of great video of the older track and those guys were pretty amazing- throwing the car sideways with smoke rolling off the right rear tire. It certainly wasn't an easy place to pass. It was even narrower then than it is now. Of course the cars are a lot different too, today. I look back at what Cale has done and no matter how many Southern 500's I win I don't think I could ever compare myself to him. He's pretty awesome."

In light of the Jimmy Spencer/Kurt Busch situation, does having a so-called 'bad guy' in the sport help it in terms of fan and media interest?
JG: "Absolutely. As tough as it's been for Kurt Busch, I'm proud of him for keeping focused and putting the car in Victory Lane like he did this weekend. That's certainly not going to shut people up. They still seem to be pretty avid about their opinions and how they feel about the situation. You go along and try to do the best you can. But things happen that sometimes are out of your control. People react. Similar things have happened to me- not what's going on with Kurt - but along the way I started hearing boos. I didn't understand it and didn't really feel like I'd done anything that really brought that on other than working hard and winning races. I think that's sort of where Kurt's at in this deal. He's racing hard and has had a few things that have gotten him in trouble. I think he's finding out there are a lot more Jimmy Spencer fans out there than he realized (laughs). But I do think it's good in some ways for the sport because it brings excitement and a lot of attention to the sport. But I think we'd all rather see just positive things. But we all know that this is the year 2003, and these days controversy draws a lot more attention."

What were your first impressions of Darlington, and what is the flavor of the place?
JG: "I didn't really think about anything other than the race track when I first started going there. A lot of tracks that I've raced on over the years that are not the size of Winston Cup tracks can pop-up out of nowhere in small towns. What is amazing about Darlington is how little it's changed and how well it has held on to its history and its roots so much. It's also done that within the sport as well. The fans love it. They flock to it. There are many drivers out there that will tell you they love it and hate it at the same time because it's a great race track. But at the same time, it reaches out and bites you when you least expect it."

How do you feel about the Southern 500 being moved and only going to Darlington once when balancing tradition against the new economic incentives of NASCAR?
JG: "I'm definitely in favor of growth and what the future has in store for us. I don't know if I'm necessarily in favor of tracks getting two races right now. I'd much rather see us building new tracks in markets we're not going to. But that's not the case right now. You have to pull from one to get to another. If any track deserves a second date it's Southern California. It's a great race track; it's a great area, and a great market. It's certainly going to continue to help our sport to grow. You hate to see it and to know which track to pull a date from. But it's just part of that difficult decision that NASCAR and those folks have to make. But to me, going to Darlington won't really be the same if it's not on this weekend (Labor Day). But I'm just going to look at it as another race and another championship opportunity and it doesn't really matter to me when it falls. But I think we'll miss it a little bit the first year or so."

How important is it for drivers to leave their difference behind instead of continuing to spark a feud?
JG: "The one thing that I see it being so much different than in other sports is that they don't play the same team the next week- or rarely do. We basically are playing against the same teams every weekend. You've got to be able to control your emotions obviously during the race. But if it's something that has you pretty upset, you've got to be able to leave it behind or at least during the week learn to let it roll off your back and move on. All it does is tear up race cars and get you focused on another driver or team and not let you focus on what you're team is doing. It doesn't matter if you're mad at another driver or in my case, just having a bad weekend. On race day you've got to put it behind you. Plus, you don't want to have a lot of enemies out there - especially when you're trying to battle in points. You don't want any enemies making it tougher than it already is."

Are the driver attitudes becoming like professional wrestling where you take sides? Does that distract from the reality of the competition of racing?
JG: "I think we're dealing with a combination of things. As the years go by, new things pop up as the sport grows. There are good and bad things that happen. Right now I see that is very competitive. The race cars are so close. It's hard to get an advantage on anybody. It's hard to pass. It's hard to get that track position that we all talk about because we know that's what is going to win the race most of the time. And so because it's so competitive, you're pushing the limits of the car and of yourself a lot more. You see more aggressiveness. On the other side, the sport has grown to the status that you can become a super star. Everybody wants to stand out on his own. They want to be a super star. They want to have the best team, the best sponsors, the best endorsements, and all these things. It's hard to do when there are this many competitive guys out there. Sometimes it's not what you do on the race track, but it's what you do off the race track to draw attention. Sometimes it can be positive and sometimes it's negative. You've seen some guys personalities and attitudes be hyped up to another level."

What is your favorite memory of the Southern 500?
JG: "It would definitely have to be when I won the Winston million there (in 1997). I was battling with Jeff Burton on the last lap. I thought I had it and then he came on so strong. I thought I would lose it on the last lap. I'm thankful I was racing Jeff Burton. We raced hard but we raced clean. He could have taken me out. I think he expected me to fight him for it because he knew what was on the line for me. And I did. He was really good about it. I'll never forget going to Victory Lane and winning the Winston million. It was quite an accomplishment. I sort of miss that program. But at the same time, I've won a lot more money from Winston because of the No Bull program that they had. The Winston million was a pretty tough one to pull off."

How important has tradition been to building this sport and do you see some of it going away this weekend?
JG: "I came along at a time when the sport was really taking off. I've been in this sport long enough to see tradition and the history. Obviously I'm not the guy who has been around for 20 years and there are other guys who can speak to this better than I can. Because of how our sport has grown and at our fan base and what has kept it moving forward, it is a fine line between growth and tradition. Everybody struggles with that. I feel sorry for NASCAR a lot of days because they have a lot of tough calls to make. But in my opinion, the tradition is really with Darlington. If it's not on Labor Day weekend, people are still going to appreciate the history that goes on at Darlington even if the date is moved. We will try to appreciate this weekend as much as we can because it has been there for so long on that weekend. But I don't think it will take away from it. It will just be a little bit different."

Why have you been so successful at Darlington?
JG: "Now there's a tough question. I remember the very first time I went there in a Busch car with Bill Davis. It was a track that I thought was so cool. It was fast and up next to the wall. It reminded me on racing Sprint Cars at Winchester for the first time. It's a track where everybody intimidates you before you ever get there. They basically scare you before you make one lap on the track. And then you go out there and you think it's a little spooky, but it's a cool track. Whether it be the line around there that fits my driving style or the set-ups that fit our race cars, it's really hard to say exactly what it is. It's changed over the years with as much downforce as we have in these cars. I can remember when you couldn't even go a lap before the tires were old. And now, you've got harder tires and more downforce and the cars last a lot longer yet we're still running good. That's one of those questions where I don't necessarily want to figure out. I just want it to keep going."

Good drivers have skills, experience, and very good eyes. What's inside you that is not in most?
JG: "There are certain skills that come naturally and there are some that you have to be taught. I've been driving a race car since I was five. My stepfather taught me a lot of things. I was a sponge and soaked it in at a very young age. Not all of it came naturally, but the competition side did when I got out there in the car. There is something that allows me to pull more out of myself than I can any other time. What comes along with that is not just the focus but also the intensity level and the aggressiveness, and the patience. It's being able to know what's around you and what it's going to take to go faster than that car in front of you and keep those guys behind you. I've always said I've been driving a race car for so long that I don't know anything different. I had a great person to help me along the way."

Robbie Loomis Q&A

Does Jeff's past success at Darlington put a lot of pressure on you for this weekend?
RL: "There's always a lot of pressure when you have a driver as good as Jeff. We look forward to Darlington. It's really one of our favorite race tracks. Before I came here it was one I didn't look forward to. Now I love going there."

Why did you feel more pressure when you became the crew chief for the #24 team?
RL: "It's just the expectation, I think, when you're working for a driver of Jeff's caliber. When you go to the race track, you know you have a driver capable of winning that race. It's just a matter of making sure that the car, the equipment, and the team are even with Jeff Gordon."

How challenging is Darlington compared to other race tracks?
RL: "It's very challenging. It's probably one of the biggest challenges as far as handling (goes). Bristol is another challenging race track from the driver's standpoint because things happen so quickly. But at Darlington, not only are you traveling at a high rate of speed, but Turns 1 and 2 are a lot different than Turns 3 and 4 and the grip level goes away so quick. You want new tires about every two laps you run. Unfortunately you have to wait about 65 or 70 (laps) before you get them."

What is your earliest impression and memory of Darlington? What sets it apart from other tracks?
RL: "My first year going to Darlington was probably in 1987. That's what the front stretch was over on the other side. And the garages were not much to speak of at the time. But it was just a really unique race track. I know that for me it was very challenging- especially with a driver who hadn't been there very much before. But I've learned to love the place. Looking back through some of the pictures that Richard Petty gave me about the place when it had a guardrail. It's always been a treacherous race track and one that you must respect when you walk into it."

Do you have any negative feelings about losing the Labor Day weekend date at Darlington?
RL: "I've never really been caught up in the tradition (of it). I have a tremendous amount of respect for Indianapolis Motor Speedway and for Daytona and the Daytona 500 always being there. We were fortunate enough to win the Southern 500 at Darlington last year. So, I hate to see it go. But at the same time, I don't want to keep driving around in the same vehicle my whole life. I want to keep increasing to better vehicles and better things. I think that going to California will be a newer and better venue that will be better for the sport in the long run. I think that's what we're all after."

Can luck play a big role in how the season can go for a driver?
RL: "Definitely. I can remember one time when a reporter asked Richard Petty if Jeff Gordon was that good or if he was just lucky. Richard said, 'Both.' A driver can be that good, but he can be that lucky too. As the coach of a race team, I have to look at every circumstance that happens and then try to backtrack from there to see what put us in that circumstance for that so-called luck to be bad or whatever. We just have to make sure that we have the best race cars and the best pit crew. After that, we have to let the circumstances fall where they may."

Next year when the race is run under the lights in November and the track temperature is coolr, will you set up the car like you do for the spring race?
RL: "That's one thing that will be a little bit of an advantage for us. I was just looking through my Darlington notes for the last couple of years. One thing for sure, it seems like qualifying has gotten rained out for one of the two races. I think we might be a little better on the weather and I think we can go off our spring notes more. I think the track is going to have a little more grip, but that asphalt is just worn out. Once you've run 20 laps on it, you're not going to know if it's 40 degrees or 60 degrees."

Do you think it will be a big change for the drivers?
RL: "That's one thing that will help keep the drivers fresher and mentally sharp. I think it will make the race a little better because everybody will be a little more attentive. It'll be a fight, that's for sure."

Do the driver attitudes like Spencer/Busch affect happen among the crew chiefs?
RL: "Absolutely not. It seems like we've lost a little something in the sport during the last few months regarding respect and the Gentleman's agreement. It seems to somehow be slipping away. I think it has gone before but has come back. But the crew chiefs are not driving these cars. We're preparing them so those guys can go out there and race them. There's a respect that has to be there for one another. I think the drivers need to work on developing that so they can get back to things like the Gentleman's Agreement that have always been in place and that has always seemed to work pretty good. It used to be that if you didn't abide by the Gentleman's Agreement and you raced back to the caution, you didn't have to worry about NASCAR doing anything. When you got down to the next corner after a restart, that driver that you weren't nice to was going to take care of it. We've just got to get back to a little more of that."

What kind of sport is it that encourages people to go back behind the grandstands and settle disputes with their fists?
RL: "In NASCAR racing, emotions run extremely high. But in no way, shape, or form do we have any room for a fight or something of that nature. It's a sport and it's supposed to be respected as a sport. NASCAR probably took the right stance and the right action on what happened at Michigan."

How special would it be for Jeff to win again at Darlington this weekend?
RL: "It's incredible when you look at Jeff's numbers at Darlington. It would be tremendous for our team. Like any team, you build on momentum. We've had great race cars, but we've just been missing in little areas to get to the bottom line. We're trying to make sure we're crossing our t's and dotting our i's to make sure we're giving him the kind of race cars to get to Victory Lane. We're going to have our share of victories before the year is out and hopefully it will start at Darlington. It would be a good spark to get us electrified for the rest of the year."

Does the current provisional starting spot system need to be changed?
RL: "It depends on what side of the fence you're on. It's like anything else. I'd like to see them do something different. Some things went on this year that wasn't really what NASCAR was looking for when they set these rules in place with some people switching car numbers and things like that. A system needs to be in place that honors the guys and sponsors that are there week in and week out and that makes sure they are kept in the shows. We need to protect those guys who have major corporations spending a lot of money to see their cars on TV on Saturday nights and Sundays."

Is the provisional count that's in place right now a good system?
RL: "It needs a little tweaking. Right now, if you're in the top 25 in points, it doesn't count as a provisional against you. But if you're out of the top 25 you can use up your provisionals pretty quick. Unfortunately the guys that are out of the top 25 in points are usually the guys who are using the most of them. So they run out of them pretty quick. And then anybody who has a trailer or a race car can pull into the race track and start in the show. They might not have the speed or the equipment to be in the show on Sunday."

Does the past champion's provisional still need to be in the mix?
RL: "That's a good thing. I'd like to see us be able to take care of these guys who have been champions of the sport. It's because of those champions like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip that have helped make these venues what they are. Anything we can do to take care of a champion as he's finishing out his career is good. It's hard to walk away from something you love so much. When we can make room to put them in there, it's special."

Is there a stigma to the past champion's provisional?
RL: "It's something that there are times when you wonder if we need to have this guy or that guy in there. But the biggest thing is the sponsors and what they have done for the drivers (and vice-versa). I think it's real important to have them in there on Sunday."

In what direction can you turn to find more speed?
RL: "We were looking at things the other day and I said if there was a seminar out there right now, I believe I'd go for strategy. It's just the way these races are falling and the way the competition is so close. In the statistics of the races and the cautions and the number of laps ran. That's a big area for gain. But as far as the race cars themselves go, we're always reacting to what NASCAR does. NASCAR is probably going to make some changes to help the aero side of it to take away a little bit of the aerodynamics of the cars. And when they do, we'll have to work real hard to get back into the mechanical side of the car to get the grip back. For the last two or three years, we've been working extremely hard in all the chassis changes just to help the car aerodynamically. We kind of forgot a little bit about the mechanical side. As NASCAR looks at making some changes on the aero side, we'll have to look real hard at getting the grip back in the car mechanically."

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