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Chase Goes Down To The Wire


DARLINGTON, S.C.- - With two races remaining in the chase for the Nextel Cup, Jeff Gordon trails Kurt Busch by 41 points. On Friday at Darlington, Gordon sat down for an extended media press conference.


DO YOU HAVE TO PREPARE FOR EACH RACE TRACK DIFFERENTLY?
"Most of the differences are in the set-ups and in the race cars. As a driver, we just push the limits of the car and try to find a balance the car works well with. But I would definitely say that you go to Atlanta that's a super fast race track, you've got to mentally get your mind in the qualifying mode and then in the race mode. It's like two different races in one weekend. We find that in a lot of place. At Darlington, there is no bigger difference on any track on new tires than here. On new tires, the car has a lot of grip and then they go away fast. You somewhat hang onto it and slide your car through the turns. The 10 tracks we've had in the Chase are all awesome. They add a great variety that bring the team and driver aspect into it. It really is making for a great championship. This race here, is certainly going to be a finesse race track and next week is going to be charging hard getting the aero advantage as much as you can out of the race car."

HOW DOES THE INTENSITY OF THE CHASE AND BRINGING MORE GUYS INTO IT CHANGE YOUR FOCUS?
"Right now, it's so close among so many guys. In the past, even if you're behind you were only focused on one guy if you had a shot at it. If you were leading it, you were only focused on one guy and all you really had to do was go out there and get decent finishes. I compare this to '97 when I was with Mark and DJ and that was extreme and intense pressure. In some ways it was even greater because you really had 10 races to do it in and you were battling with more guys. At the beginning of it, you were dealing with nine other guys who were within the 45 or 50 points. The intensity has been taken away a little bit, but still greater than I've ever seen it. The focus on the Chase seems to be greater. The stakes of the accomplishment and what it's worth - not just monetarily - but what it means to be the first NEXTEL Cup champion. So there are a lot of things on the line that are adding pressure to it. But for the most part, it's those other guys that you race with and they'll be more guys. I don't think you're really able to focus on those guys as much as you've really got to focus on your own deal and just get the best effort you possibly can out of it. When we get to Homestead, hopefully we're in that battle, then maybe we'll focus on those guys. But I don't think you can focus on anybody else until you get to that last race - even the closing laps of the last race."

IF YOU LOOK AT THE WHOLE SEASON TO DATE, HOW HAS THE CHASE CHANGED THE ENTIRE COMPLEXION OF THE SEASON?
"It's definitely changed. The media writes about what the points would have been if we were in the old system - and I appreciate that (grin). It's changed it tremendously. We saw the intensity level as it came into Richmond and went out of Richmond for just making the top 10. We've never seen that much focus in the sport - ever. Yeah, you got to go to New York and go on stage. But they really made you feel special just to be in it - not to mention that you know you have a shot at the championship. I was never against it, I felt like maybe it was a little bit too drastic of a change. But I will say it's been exciting from inside the car and outside the car. It's given the media a lot to talk about hich is good for the sport. The fans have gotten closer and deeper into it and that's good. How you race these last 10 is totally different - other than in 1997. You've got two different races. You've got to get yourself in the top 10 and then you've got to come out strong and race extremely hard for those last 10. I was surprised that everybody talked about the Mulligan. I really thought that if somebody had trouble, they'd be out of it. And that was happening until Kurt had his trouble in Atlanta. That really has changed this whole thing. I haven't done anything stellar other than Charlotte and I'm sitting in second. So, I'm shocked by that. I didn't think that would get it done. And I know that in order to win the championship, we've got to do something really stellar during these last two races. "

HOW DID CAR FEEL AND THOUGHTS FOR SUNDAY'S RACE:
"It is really hard to tell because we were only out there for two runs and the tires are gone in one lap. We made basically two runs. The first time out I was real loose and we tightened the car up and I was really good and we climbed up to ninth or tenth on the board then some other guys knocked us back to fourteenth. We had felt pretty comfortable and confident about qualifying today had it come off. I don't know whether we would have qualified second so starting by points certainly worked in our favor today. We are excited about this weekend at Darlington. We just got done testing at Homestead and had a good test there. These next two races are definitely good ones for us but just like what happened to us here earlier in the year, we have to put it all together, stay out of trouble and finish ahead of those guys we are racing for the championship."

DOES ALL THE CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDERS STARTING UP FRONT TOMORROW CHANGE ANYTHING IN YOUR TEAM'S STRATEGY FOR THE RACE?
"It will definitely be different because I will be able to keep my eye on all of those guys. We will be able to know right away who is good and who isn't of the guys you are really racing in the championship. The only thing that really comes out of qualifying is if one of the guys in the chase doesn't qualify well and everyone wonders if maybe they are struggling or maybe they are in trouble or they have gotten themselves farther back and have their work cut out for themselves. The good teams, the guys that are fast and the guys in the championship chase usually find their way to the front no matter what. So we will all start up front. I think it is a good thing, I think it will be exciting for the fans. We will just kind of have our eyes on those guys we are really racing against for the championship. It is kinda nice to have the chance to know exactly where they are in the beginning instead of having guys up front that aren't in the chase. There is certainly some unpredictability to that scenario at times. I am more focused on a front row starting spot and a good spot on pit road, that was the main thing for us."

IS IT FAIR TO SAY YOU'VE CHANGED YOUR OPINION ABOUT THE CHASE?
"I still think there are maybe some adjustments that could be made with the points system - especially when you get down to the last 10. But I've changed my mind in some ways. I was pretty disappointed that what you did in these first 26 races was being taken away from you as drastically as it was. I felt like it was cool to have 10 guys in there but should that 10th place guy be that close in the points? I still don't know if that is necessarily the way in my mind it ought to be. But it's exciting and entertaining and the ratings are good. When I put my owner hat on, I say that it's very good for the sport. When you're dealing with sponsors and you're asking the kind of money that we do these days to sponsor these race cars, it's important for the sport to be exciting and be drawing a lot of attention. I definitely think that this is going to be exciting and entertaining. I just hoped it would keep the competitors in mind. But now that I'm a part of it, I see that whoever wins this championship should be very proud because it's a heck of an accomplishment. It's very difficult to win this championship - more so than any I've ever been a part of because there are so many guys you're racing and there are 10 different race tracks as well."

TALK ABOUT HOW KURT BUSCH MIGHT BE FEELING LEADING:
"I am sure there is some nervousness but when you strap in a race car and you fire up that engine and they drop the green flag, you aren't really thinking about being nervous. It is actually one of the most comfortable moments for a driver. You are waiting to see how the race is going to unfold and what your car feels like. You start thinking about the race and your racecar. Now, one of the things that I think is key from my position and key from an experienced team is if things start to go wrong it is critical not to panic. If you see an opportunity to win the race, you can't make a mistake trying to do it. From an experienced team perspective, I think they advantage we may have if we have one, is there is less tendency to panic when things don't go right and we will get a strong finish out of it if we are in that position and we can weigh out how important it is too push it is we get that very small window of opportunity to win the race. We are here to win the championship and you have to finish before you can win the championship. How if we are battling with a guy who we are battling for in the chase, it might take the risk. But I think for younger guy like Kurt, those may be a few of the things that are weighing on him in terms of how to evaluate making those decisions. And sometimes you can't, it is in the heat of the moment, the adrenaline is flowing and you just have to make it. He has done an excellent job in my opinion this entire year, so I don't see why that would be something that would catch up with him in these last two races unless that pressure gets him. I will say for all of us, this is the most intensive championship battle I have ever seen. There is more pressure that all of us have and certainly have a little edgyness knowing that every lap and position is absolutely crucial and trying not to outweigh our thought process is important for everyone."

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE POSSIBILITY OF FINISHING UNDER THE LIGHTS AT DARLINGTON?
"I ran under the lights a while back when they first put them up and it changes this track drastically. We should be pretty comfortable with the race track and when the lights come on we'll have enough time to really adapt to it and it shouldn't change things too much. It's going to be cool here already on Sunday, so that shouldn't change things too much."

WHAT ABOUT SHADOWS ON THE TRACK?
"There are very few tracks we run on that have lights that we run right up against the wall in the corners. Having banking and being up close to the wall and with the soft wall creates challenges on how you light it. After I was here, I talked with the lighting guys and gave them some of my thoughts and as far as I know they made some adjustments on the lights and we'll find out Sunday night."

IS IT GOOD THAT DARLINGTON IS IN THE FINAL 10 RACES?
"It's good it's in the mix because it's a track I run good at. I don't think about too many other things other than that. If you look at the tracks, some of them have a lot of history. Some of them are new. They're all challenging in their own way. I think this is definitely one of the most challenging tracks."

DOES YOUR SUCCESS AT DARLINGTON GIVE YOU A PSYCHOLOGICAL ADVANTAGE?
"If anything, it gives ourselves some advantages because we know how good we've been here. We have a good idea on the combination we're looking for and how to set the car up. But right now, I think everybody is just focusing on getting the most out of their own car and their own team. Some run horrible here and some run good. We don't focus on anybody else buy ourselves. When it comes down to the final race, we've got a shot at the championship and we've got to finish one or two positions ahead of somebody or win it or something like that, then we start thinking about the competition and the points. But right now, as tight as it is, I still don't think we're thinking about points, we're just thinking about coming out of here with a strong finish. Phoenix was a must for us. We had to have a good finish there. I was glad we pulled it off. If we hadn't, we would have come in here in a big hole and with our momentum going the wrong way. Even thought Junior won the race, we still gained some momentum."

ON THE POINTS SYSTEM:
"This points system is very exciting. It's keeping the interest level up. Whoever wins this championship this year should be very honored and proud of what they've accomplished because this is one of the toughest championships I've ever been a part of. Since I've been in this sport, I've never seen it this competitive with this many people going for it all the way down to the finish like this."

HAS IT TURNED OUT TO BE MORE LEGITIMATE THAN YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE IN THE BEGINNING?
"Yeah, but my concerns weren't that. I always knew it was going to be exciting and entertaining and close and difficult to win. My problem was that I felt like it was leaning more toward the excitement and entertainment side instead of the actual competitor side. I could easily sit here and say where we'd be if the old points system was in place. I'm just saying that when it's all said and done, as much as we like or dislike it right now, whoever gets that trophy has really done something."

WHAT CHANGES WOULD YOU MAKE TO THE SYSTEM?
"I don't know. I want to think about it some when it's all said and done. If we win it, I would tell them what a great job they did (grin). I'll pat Brian France on the back and say what a genius he is."

ON HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY COMING UP:
"I say this honestly. I don't think this championship could come down to a better place or a better race track than Homestead. They have done a phenomenal job with that race track. Give it to the computer wizards or whoever that have designed that race track and the third time is the charm. They've been trying to get that place right and they finally did. You're going to see side-by-side racing, you're going to see a superspeedway, and you're going to see some dicing and some great racing to decide this championship. I think you couldn't ask for a better end to the season or a better end to the championship."

HOW DID YOUR TEST SESSION GO AT HOMESTEAD? HAS THE TRACK AGED?
"It did age. When tracks change and they age like that, it's usually for the better. And as good as that track was when the pavement was brand new, we all new knew it was only going to get better and it did. I thought our test went well."

WHO HAS THE MOST PRESSURE RIGHT NOW? KURT BUSCH OR YOU?
"I think it's on all of us. We all have really the same at stake here. Yeah, he's got a lead but he doesn't have a big enough lead to protect it or pad it. He knows he's got to go out there and win. We all know we've got to win as well. We've got to run up front and finish ahead of those guys. And those guys are winning, so basically you have to win to beat them in the points championship. I think Kurt feels that and Jimmie and Junior and Mark feel that. That's what makes this thing so intense right now. It's not about getting a top 10. It's about getting wins."

HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH ROBBIE LOOMIS GROWN OVER TIME?
"Robbie and I have grown to be better friends and we've gotten to communicate better about the race car. I think we can all be ourselves a little bit more. When it gets intense, he's got to step up and say what's on his mind and he says it. It's the same for me. We care about one another and respect one another a lot and we know we can pretty much get through anything - no matter how good or bad things get at times. We never give up on it. At the end of the day, we pat one another on the back and go to the next one."

HOW CRITICAL IS RESPECT?
"I think as soon as you lose respect for any member of your team - your crew chief especially - then the confidence level goes away and communication goes away and everything is gone."

THIS GROUP OF TOP FOUR DRIVERS DOESN'T APPEAR TO BE PLAYING ANY MIND GAMES WITH ONE ANOTHER. ARE YOU SURPRISED BY THAT?
"I've never been one to play mind games. It's not been my thing. Some guys do that. I think if you look at the group of guys who are battling for the championship, they want to leave any mind games on the race track and how you perform. That's the bottom line anyway. Even when I was racing Earnhardt for the championship in '95, and he wanted to get involved in mind games, all we did was go out there and perform and it put a lot of that stuff to rest. I think it just has to do with the personalities that are battling for the championship right now. There are a couple of guys in this garage area that would be doing that if they were in the battle."

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT THE CHASE - PREPARATION OR OTHERWISE -- THAT YOU MIGHT DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
"I've been surprised that we've been able to maintain where we are with the lack of performance. I felt like 10 races were a lot of racing and consistency was still going to be important. You talk about the 'mulligan' and I thought at one time that if you had one bad race you'd be out of it. I think maybe two-- if you can back it up. Jimmie has had probably had more than two and then has just gone on and dominated three races and put himself right back into it. So, I still think we've got to be consistent. And that's the only thing about maybe changing the points system. Right now, the way it is for a 10 race battle, consistency is playing too much of a role. It just goes back to the points system that I would like to see put in place. And that it more points for the winner and the top five and really just even the points out toward the end of the field so you can get rid of some of those bad races and go forward and get the points back on some of a win."

ON DARLINGTON BEING ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT TRACKS IN THE FINAL 10 RACES:
"Nobody argues that. It's definite. This is a tough race track. They only made it tougher when they put the soft walls in here and took away 30 inches of racing room that we didn't have to begin with. And so this is a track where you've got to stay out of the wall. As you can see in practice, it's not easy. You can tell yourself over and over to stay out of the wall, but you're trying to stay out of the wall and put the limits on the car and those two don't mix. That's what makes this track, without a doubt, the most difficult track on the circuit."

HOW WILL IT CHANGE NEXT YEAR'S CHASE BY TAKING DARLINGTON OUT AND PUTTING TEXAS IN?
"On a personal level, I think it's a mistake because I like this race track and we run good at this race track. If you could pick this race track up and put it in New York City or Texas or Miami, we'd be racing here. The bottom line is that decisions have to be made for the better of the sport. I don't know how ticket sales are or ratings are but history of a race track is good but it only can take you so far. Hey, I'd want a road course in there too. I think this is a track that belongs in the Chase. It's a driver's championship they way they award it even though we know it's a team thing. But this is a driver's track and I think it belongs in the Chase. As good as I've run at Texas the last couple of times, I'm not minding too much being in Texas. I can selfishly say I want tracks in there that I run good at, but I do think they have to be good markets and a variety of race tracks and that would be the truest test for a champion."

ON A POSSIBLE NEW SYSTEM OF QUALFIYING?
"I don't know all the details about it so I'm unclear on how it would be structured. But if I take my driver hat off and put my owner hat on, and say that we need to franchise. It's a very tricky thing to pull off in this sport. It's not like any other sport. There's a uniqueness about it that's very hard to structure that. But I believe the teams need to have value in the organization. If you look at the investment, you need to have one security with your sponsors. And by knowing you're going to be in every race is one way to do that. Franchising is a way that, if there are only so many teams out there that are available then if somebody wants to sell a team or buy a team they've got to go through that type of a system. When you look at teams that have folded or others that have tried to come in, it's very easy to get started and very difficult to leave."

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON NASCAR ALLOWING LIQUOR SPONSORSHIPS?
"Well, they're going to market their products. They're going to be out there. I think we've got to be careful because you don't want that to take over. But they're out there marketing anyway and spending a lot of money. The sport is getting very expensive and we're asking a lot out of our sponsors. They are giving it and they ask for a lot in return. We're starting to reach the limit of that. If there are other companies that want to get involved in our sport and support a team and promote a product, it's kind of hard to tell them they can't."

ON HAVING KIDS AS FANS AND ALIGNING WITH THE IMAGE OF LIQUOR:
"Look at Dale Jr. and his sponsorship with a beer company and they've figured out ways around it. And he's got a lot of fans spread around a lot of ages. It's very important for these companies when they come in here to put a positive spin on it. They've got to find a way to market heavily around not drinking and driving and trying to promote safety with alcohol. I think that's got to be extremely important."

WHEN YOU HAVE ILL-HANDLING RACE CARS, IS IT HARD FOR YOU AND ROBBIE LOOMIS NOT TO POINT FINGERS?
"Oh, we're back to that respect thing. There's a way to handle things. Don't think we don't have those conversations. It might go the other way. He might wonder what the heck I'm doing driving the thing. You have to be open enough to have those conversations to make sure you do better. You've also got to have enough respect with one another to know how to go about having that conversation with one another."





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