12 In 12: An Interview With Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon reveals his answers to SB Nation's 12 questions, including the best time to approach him for an autograph.

Every week this season, we've asked a different NASCAR driver to sit down with us and answer 12 questions. This week, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon offers his insight and opinions on a variety of topics:

What's the best race you've ever driven – or one of the best races, since you've had a few?

JG: One that's just popping into my head right now is Martinsville (in spring 2005). We had a problem with the right front. I think we went three laps down, and we got those laps back on the track (only one was due to a free pass) and came back to win the race. That one stands out for some reason.

Who do you think is the most talented driver in NASCAR? You're allowed to say yourself.

JG: Can I have a two-part answer? It's a combination of Tony (Stewart) and Kyle (Busch). I think sometimes Kyle just gets too aggressive and doesn't always utilize his talents the best he possibly can. And then I think Tony sometimes needs that extra push of motivation to utilize his talents.

To me, I think Tony is one of the most talented drivers I've ever raced against.

Let's say a fan wants to get your autograph at the track. What's the best time for them to do that?

JG: Well, not before or after the race. The race day is kind of like the worst time. And during practice is a bad time. So really, any time other than that, I'm fine with it. If I'm not in a conversation with another driver or my crew chief, then I'm totally open to it.

On race day, I'm usually just bam-bam-bam from one place to another in a sequence of events – there's just never time. And then when the race is over, I'm just exhausted and ready to go home.

I prefer it when it's a scheduled event and I know going into it that that's what I'm going to be doing. I like things to be organized, because it's more efficient that way. I've actually talked to NASCAR about trying to schedule and organize (autograph) events throughout the weekend. Maybe not the same drivers doing it every weekend, but there are those diehard fans that really want that autograph; then there are those fans who are (like), if they get it, they get it. So why don't we take care of those people? Because walking through the garage area or seeing them all hanging on the fence waiting for you to come over there, it's not always going to happen. It doesn't always work out, and you can't explain to them why or why not.

I'm kind of mixed on it, because I think that these days, the only way to get an autograph is either at an appearance or walking through the garage area. And I personally don't think walking through the garage area is the best place, but we do it because it's kind of their only opportunity. So you've got to recognize what their side of it is. I try not to ever say 'No' to anybody, except for those exceptions that I talked about.

What's something that fans may not know about you based on what they've seen on TV?

JG: Well, a lot of things! Like, you doing an interview with me for 10 or 15 minutes, (fans are) going to learn way more than me doing a 30-second interview or even a one-minute interview on TV, because typically, I'm talking about the race that day, or the car or the team – it's really nothing personal.

Sometimes they'll throw in a question about what's going on with (his children) Ella or Leo or stuff like that, and get a little personal. I personally think the fans learn very little about you through those interviews. But yet, they have to make a judgment based on them.

That's why I really enjoy going and doing (Speed's) Trackside Live, and I enjoy doing some of the Q-and-A events we do with our sponsors, because they really get to know you a lot better on stuff like that. Because it's not the same questions that they hear all the time.

You've got to understand, when we're doing an interview, we're representing our sponsors. And so we have to always throw their name in there – and I know people hate that, but the thing is, if we don't say it, we hear from the people who are paying the bills.

It's like, 'We would have liked for you to have said this' or 'Can you turn the Pepsi this way?' You know, little stuff like that – those are the things we have to keep in the back of our mind. So when you're thinking that way in an interview, you're not just thinking, 'Oh, you know, I'm just going to totally be myself so the people at home can get an idea of who I am.'

If you were in charge of NASCAR and could change one thing about the sport, what would it be?

JG: Well, if you're them, the first thing is gathering all the information. The reason things are the way they are is because they have access to a lot more information – or the understanding of that information – far better than the rest of us. So I don't always disagree with what they're doing, for that exact reason.

First of all, explain to me why the ticket prices are what they are. Why the rules are the way they are. What led to that? Why do we spend X-amount of dollars on advertising in this area or that area? To me, it's all about attracting the fans.

Right now, the big thing is ticket sales and viewership at home. But until I had a better understanding through polls and all that stuff, (I couldn't say) why the people are tuning in and why they are not tuning in; what it is they like and what it is that they don't like. I don't think I could really put myself in (NASCAR's) position and say, 'Hey, we should be doing this.'

One thing is, because I'm a driver and I want to make the racing the best I possibly could, I would definitely look at some alternative aerodynamic packages that we could do to try to get more air to the cars (in traffic).

Who is the driver you most admire outside of NASCAR?

JG: I mean, I admired Michael Schumacher up until this year, but he's been brought back to earth. Before, he was like Michael Jordan. I like Lewis Hamilton a lot, I think he's really talented. The thing is, you usually can admire somebody from afar, but I like to always follow that up with meeting them and getting to know them and basing it off that. You don't really get a chance to do that with guys from (Formula One).

But I love what they do and I love watching them, mostly because they get to drive really cool cars. And they get to travel to really cool places. That's what I admire about them! (laughs)

If a driver came to you and asked one driver he should learn from and one he shouldn't, who would those two people be?

JG: Well, it would be hard not to learn from Jimmie Johnson right now – he's been the most dominant guy in the sport. I think one of the things that makes Jimmie so good is his work ethic. Like, he wasn't always put in the best equipment, and I think one of the reasons why he didn't stand out to a lot of people before he got to the Cup Series is because he wasn't in the absolute best cars and with the best team.

He was, on average, finishing 10th and eighth and not winning a whole lot. And because of that, it made him work a lot harder. So when he got to the Cup Series, he had this tremendous work ethic to break down all the details of what the cars were doing, write down a lot of notes on each track. He just was constantly trying to figure out what he could do to be better and learn from others, and I think he's one of the best at that.

A lot of times, having the raw talent and being in the best equipment makes you really lazy. And I don't think you always put as much effort into what it takes to be No. 1 – and stay there.

As far as who not to learn from? Well, there's different categories. When it comes to working with the media and interviews, Kyle Busch is an easy one. When it comes to driving the car, I think there's a lot of talent in this garage that you can look at the positives and the negatives of how those guys have gone about it with career choices. But to me, if you want to learn from somebody who should maybe change careers is Kevin Conway.

I mean, I just don't understand what the guy's motives are. I don't know what his real background was to get to this level, but it just seems to me that he's so far off the pace that it doesn't make sense as to what his goal is to continue. To me, the Cup Series is about the elite, best drivers that there absolutely are. You would like there to be a system of qualifications just to even be able to step into this garage. But that's not always the case.

I guess my purpose of mentioning him is, if you don't have those qualifications, you should ask yourself, 'Do I really belong there?' And if you think you belong there and you get there and you're just not even close to being on the pace or knowing the cars or knowing the tracks, then I think you've got to make a decision as to how long you're going to stay there and put yourself through that. Because that can't be fun. It's gotta be stressful.

You've given a few different answers on this over the years, but as of now, how much longer would you like to continue driving?

JG: I mean, I feel like I have five more years. That's pretty realistic. Mark Martin has motivated a lot of us. In Mark's case, if you stay in good shape and you've got the talent – and not many people have the talent he has – and you get in good equipment, you can do this a lot longer than you thought.

The thing I've learned is maybe there's not an age or a date where you just say, 'I'm not going to do this anymore.' It really comes down to health and performance.

I was having some back issues (last year), and I just thought, 'It's not going to get better, it's only going to get worse.' So I thought 2010 or 2011 was probably about it for me. But that changed. And through that process of training and getting in better shape, I feel fresher at this point in the season than I have in the past. So it makes me more interested in racing longer, too.

When you get home and walk through the door after a long race weekend, what's the first thing you do?

JG: Well, it depends on what time of day I get home. Give me a race. SBN: Let's say an average 1 p.m. Sunday start. OK, so I get home at probably 6 or 7 o'clock. Well, the first thing is, my daughter screams at the top of her lungs and runs and gives me a big hug. So that's the best part. And next is, I get a kiss from my wife and then I give a kiss to my little boy, if he's up.

Who wins the Sprint Cup in 2015?

JG: I guess Joey Logano. SBN: Will that be his first one? JG: (laughs) Possibly.

Are there any race-day routines you have to stick to?

JG: I usually eat the same thing every Sunday – salmon. And we have a team meeting here at the truck every week. And then I go to the bathroom before I get in the car. (laughs) That's about it. I mean, everything is the routine – the whole sequence of going to hospitality, drivers meeting, eat lunch, get dressed, team meeting, go to driver intros, go to the bathroom, get in the car.

Would you rather be known as a great driver or a great person?

JG: I'd rather be known as a great person. It's a bonus to be known as a great driver, but I don't think a great driver really describes who you are as a person in your life. I think if somebody says you're a great person, I think that's something that's hard to achieve. It's probably harder to achieve that than being a great driver.

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