The Wizard of Kansas

KANSAS CITY, KS.- - After winning the first two Winston Cup races held at Kansas Speedway, Jeff Gordon will try for three-in-a-row in Sunday's Banquet 400. He attended the Winston Breakfast on Saturday and shared his thoughts on the weekend at the 1.5-mile midwest track. He gave a vote of confidence to crew chief Robbie Loomis, admitted he put more pressure on himself which may have contributed to more mental errors, discussed the status of his pit crew, and looked at areas to improve for a title run in 2004.

Why have you had such success at Kansas?
"It's hard to explain that. I remember we came and tested here (in 2001). We did the Goodyear tire test with Bobby Labonte, and I liked the track right away. I knew it was fast. The car was fast. We came here for the race, qualified second and ran good all day long. We put ourselves in position at the right time at the end of the race and won it. That always carries a little confidence when you come back the next time. We tested again last year and won the race again. The same kind of scenario happened where we were just right place, right time and played all our cards right. We hope to do the same thing again this time. Track position is really important here, and if you can maintain it all day, great. But if you get it at the end of the race, that's the most important part of it. It could take a two-tire stop; it could take a lot of things. That's what we're going to be focused on. We've got a good starting position and we need to move up some spots, but hopefully we can maintain some of that."

Why does the setup change so much from year to year and event to event?
"You can't take for granted the competition in this sport. These guys are constantly searching for how to get better and faster. If there is a track that has two races, you go to that track the first race and you'll got for the second with a completely different setup, even if you won the race earlier. It's just trying to get the cars more and more downforce, more speed through the corners, you improve the engine so you're turning more RPM, making more power. It's just constantly trying to get better, and that's the only way you're going to get better."

Do you come to the track with any less confidence that you can win as consistently as you did a few years ago?
"When you win 13 races in a season, you pretty much don't think anybody else exists out there. It's just pretty much sky-high in a year like that. We still have confidence that we can win and go into every race approaching that race, preparing to win, and feeling like if everything goes right for us, yeah, we have a shot at winning. But the confidence level always increases as you win. I don't think you can have that kind of confidence if you're not winning that many races. We're leading a lot of laps. To me, people keep saying, 'well, you have to be disappointed with our performance this year.' I'm not disappointed with my performance at all, or the team's. They've been phenomenal, but I'm really disappointed with the results. Those two things can be separated. We've led the most laps all year long. We've qualified pretty well, although some places we haven't. We've just had some things, some are our fault and some are just circumstances that have kept us from winning more races and knocked us back in the points. It's pretty crazy. You go back to July and we were second in points, and here we are in September and we're sixth. It's a crazy point system and it's racing and a lot of things happen. As far as us going into race tracks, yeah, we go into tracks with confidence, but not to what we were in 1998 or even in 2001, when we won six races that year."

If you're out of the title picture, does it change the way you approach the last few races of the year?
"I don't know if it necessarily changes how we would have approached the races, but we're definitely focused on 2004. We're focused on the off-season. There's a lot of work ahead of us because of the rule change that NASCAR is mandating that we're basically going to be changing all the bodies on our cars. You want to go into the off-season with a positive attitude, ending the season on a good note and putting behind you some of the bad things and looking at how you can get better. That's what we're going to do the rest of this season. Like right now, we need a tire changer. We lost our tire changer right after Sears Point, and we have filled in that place a couple of times, but the guy we have right now (Shane Parsnow), who is really good, he doesn't want to be on the road all the time. So he's kind of a fill-in, and that's a position we need to fill. If there's a track we're weak at, or if there's some things we could be better at, then that's what we're focused on doing right now to the end of the season, trying to win races so we can go into the off-season feeling good with some momentum where we can build all these new cars and come out strong and ready for a championship next year."

How is your confidence in your team and specifically in your crew chief Robbie Loomis?
"It cracks me up. I was on MRN the other night and somebody called in and asked, 'is it true Chad Knaus is going to be your crew chief next year?' It's just ridiculous. It's so funny. I'm thrilled with Robbie being in there, I think our chemistry is good, and Jimmie certainly wouldn't be willing to give Chad up. There's no changes, that kind of a major change, that's coming. I believe in Robbie and I believe in the team that we have. What happens is, that's the first thing that people want to point at. Our fans are very strong-minded and very loyal, and what happens is, when I'm not winning, they want to take everything around me and change it. It's gotta be the car, it's gotta be the engine, it's gotta be Robbie, it's gotta be the pit crew. It's never Jeff. At times it is, and at times it is somebody on the team, but I really honestly can't say that the things that have happened to us this year are one guy's fault. When we make decisions, we make them together and we either win or lose together. There's no one person that has put us in the position that we're in. I think Robbie is a great crew chief and I like the way he and I work together, and I like the confidence he has in me and I like the confidence I have in him. As a whole, we did lose a little confidence because of that month or six races that we had, and that was tough to handle. What I love is that I think we're a lot stronger today now that we've had two top-5's in a row after that stretch of six races. If you can make it through that, it makes you a much better team. Certainly, none of that has gone on in the team as far as those kinds of rumblings, but I know that is something that happens, sort of gossipy, outside the race team."

Now that you are out of the title race, does it make it easier to go out these last few races and have fun?
"There might not be as much pressure, but it's certainly not as much fun. When you're battling for a championship, it's intense. You feel like every single decision is a major one, every position is a major one, so it is more intense. In this situation, there's some pressure taken off of us, where we can just go out there and race and try to win and maybe take some bigger risks than what you take when you're up there in the points. Right now, everybody is chasing Matt [Kenseth], so I don't think anybody is not being risky. I think everybody needs to be risky right now to make the type of gains that are needed to catch him. I see that everybody but Matt is doing the same thing we're doing, which is just working hard, pushing hard, taking the risky call in the pits and just trying to win."

More guys have won races from outside the top-10 than ever before. How does that happen?
"It's because when you're in the top 10, you kind of do what the top 10 does, When you're outside the top 10, what do you have to lose? What happens is, the top 10 guys come in and take four tires. The guys sitting 15th or 11th, says, 'ah, I'll take two, or I'll take no tires.' Or the caution before, he came in and took four when everybody else stayed out. Now they came in and just took two or whatever, and now he's sitting out there with a little bit older tires, but it doesn't matter anymore. These days, I bolt new tires on and I'm holding on tight, because there's no grip and they don't handle very well. I'd rather have a car with about 10 or 15 laps on my tires. They seem to be more comfortable, especially on restarts. They seem to come up to speed faster, you know what the car is going to do and the pressures are built up. I think it's an advantage to have older tires right now. I don't know if you've seen a lot of that in the last few races, but you did start to see it when track position began to be super important last year, you started seeing the guys farther back take the bigger risks. You still see it every once in a while, but I think even the guys up front are thinking a little bit more about, 'hey, this is not just an easy four-tire stop.' It's whether or not we should even come in at all; can we make it on fuel? It's almost like we're just doing fuel stops now. We just sit there and say, 'OK, how far can we go on fuel? When do we need to stop?' That's pretty scary when you're doing that at New Hampshire. That's how we ran our race at New Hampshire this year."

Are there more cars that can win these days?
"You hit on two things there. Yeah, the teams are more competitive than they've ever been, so if they get that track position, they are capable of maintaining the speed that it takes to win. The other is because of the engine rule we have now, you'll take a car that maybe qualified on the pole or front row and you put them at the back, and they are a very fast car but they had to start at the back because of that rule. So you know they're going to be up there eventually."

What are your fuel mileage weaknesses, and what do you need to build on next year to make a title run?
"Fuel mileage is probably number one on our list. At the first Loudon race, we had to come in because we couldn't make it. At Watkins Glen, we ran out. Loudon, second race, we ran out. There have been some other times this year when we've had to pit because we couldn't make it. That's extremely frustrating. We didn't risk it a couple of times and came in and lost track position and couldn't make it up and didn't win. Other guys risked it and won the race. The next time around, we risk it and run out. It's a frustrating thing. Pit stops are another thing. Dave Smith (tire changer) left to go to the #38 car (after Sonoma), and he had a lot of potential in the shop. He could be a car chief or something like that. But he was an incredible tire changer as well. We didn't need his position in the shop. We needed him on the pit crew. We couldn't blame him for wanting to go somewhere where he could be more. And he did. But it put us behind in the pits and we haven't been able to fill that position with a full time guy. The guy we have now is a part-time guy and he knows it. He's going to fill in for us for the rest of the season and he's excellent. Our pit crew is really good right now. But we've got to fill that position. I think our cars are awesome. I think our engines are awesome. The communication is really good. We need to get our confidence level up there just a little bit more. It's all about closing and we haven't closed this year like we have in the past and like I think we're capable of."

Does it seem suspicious that some teams are getting such good fuel mileage?
"Absolutely. I can tell you that our motors are running very well. That can be an advantage at time and a disadvantage at other times. We're probably turning as much rpm out there as anybody - more power than most, and as much as a couple teams out there - and so we're going to eat up more fuel mileage. The thing that definitely raises an eyebrow to me is that the #12 car (Ryan Newman) is one of the best engines out there and yet has one of the best fuel mileages out there too. And I don't know how that happens. Obviously, if it's a concern to us then certainly NASCAR has an eye on it also. I feel confident in them that if they thing there is something going on that they're going to go after it. Because fuel mileage has been so important this year, they've focused on the fuel cells and the size of the fuel cells and how anybody could possibly get more fuel in there. Now the Roush cars get better fuel mileage but they don't make as much power either. But as far as making a lot of power and getting it to go further, you must have more fuel in the tank. I'm confident that NASCAR is looking into that and trying to figure it out. It's our job to get the best fuel mileage and get as much fuel in that tank as we possibly can and go from there."

Discuss the mistakes that have been made this year
"The difference is that I've made all these mistakes in the past, but maybe we haven't seen them. Maybe we've rebounded from those mistakes and still got the good finish or the win. These days, as competitive as it is, it's much harder to rebound from those things. But I've always said I make mistakes and I'll live with them and try to move on from them and learn from them. I certainly have made my share of them this year. Is it more than I've made in the past? I think (yes) at times because you put more pressure on yourself. You've won one race and you want to win more races and it's so hard to win those races that you get yourself in that position and you're just going for it. Sometimes when you're doing that, you make some more mistakes."

This might be your last Winston Breakfast appearance. What about the change to Nextel that's coming in 2004?
"I've been in the sport now for about 11 years and it's been incredible. I've been able to experience it in a way that I think a lot of guys have not. I've been able to experience the best that it has to offer. It's been an amazing ride for me. I certainly credit RJ Reynolds and their group. They're out there working hard every weekend - not to mention during the weeks that they're creating ideas that not only helps them and their brand, but to help the sport. And I've only been in it 11 years. They've been in it a whole lot longer than that. I don't think any of us can give them enough thanks or tell them how much we appreciate them. I'm looking forward to running my car next weekend at Charlotte as a tribute to them. When you're behind the scenes, like during the week in New York and you see all they do for the champion and for the banquet and for the sport, it's hard to describe. You realize how passionate they are about this sport. It's their sport as much as it is anybody else's. We're going to miss them, for sure. I don't know if anybody can put the heart and soul into it that they have. I think they've been very limited and held back in what they can do. Unfortunately because of that that's probably why they're stepping back. But it does offer some opportunities for somebody like Nextel to come in here and do some creative things. RJ Reynolds has started a lot of those things, and those are tough shoes to fill. It's going to be hard to do the job. But it's also exciting. I don't know if they're going to have Nextel Breakfast Clubs. But mornings are not my thing so this could be the one thing I don't miss."

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