Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues with 'Four-Time' himself – Jeff Gordon. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has three victories this season – the most he's had since 2007 – and recently moved into third on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins list. We spoke with Gordon last weekend at Kansas.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
JG: (Thinks for a long time) You know, I always go back-and-forth on that because I feel like sometimes people don't realize just how good Jimmie Johnson is, even though he's the champion and everybody looks at him as a great driver. I don't know if he gets what he deserves.
Obviously, I think right now Brad Keselowski is showing a lot and people don't feel like he's capable of winning the championship. And that may well be true, but he's won a championship in the Nationwide Series and has been strong this year, so I'd say he's probably a little underrated.
You know, I always try to look at somebody who's in equipment that is decent but not equipment that's going to put him up toward the top. To me, it's probably Clint Bowyer. Looking at what's going on with his situation, I'm shocked that (Richard Childress Racing is) letting him go. Shocked they didn't choose him even over (Jeff) Burton – not to take anything away from Burton, but looking at the future, you'd think a guy like Clint Bowyer and his talents would be the first choice. I think he's very talented, and I think he gets his recognition, but I don't know if it's what he's really capable of (getting).
SBN: What's a race in your career that you didn't win and it still bugs you because you didn't win it?
JG: The Brickyard 400 this year. That one's easy! I mean, that's fresh on my mind and one that I really felt like was ours. You know, I've always said if you win as many races as I have, there are some races you should have won and some races you shouldn't have won – and I usually don't get caught up in the ones that were oh-so-close.
Then there was Martinsville last year (Denny Hamlin won on a green-white-checkered restart), where they waved the yellow right as I was coming across the line (to take the white flag); that was a bummer. I felt like we had that one.
But see, that's the same thing. We weren't really the best car that day, but Steve (Letarte) made a great call in the pits and we found ourselves up front and going to win the race – if the caution doesn't come out, we win it. So that's the way racing is, in my opinion.
The Brickyard this year definitely stands out though.
SBN: Refresh my memory, though – at the Brickyard, you were trying to catch Paul Menard in the final laps. But there wasn't anything you could have done differently, right?
JG: I mean, I don't know there's anything I could have done different – I ran as hard as I possibly could. And those guys just stretched the fuel mileage and did their job. But still, I felt like it was a race we were in position to win. I don't know, maybe if the caution had fell a little bit different, those guys wouldn't have been in position to stretch their fuel mileage.
I base it off the performance and the speed. To me, that was the best car and you're disappointed when you don't win those races.
SBN: If you could pick your teammates on a four-car Sprint Cup Series team – and you can't pick anyone currently on your team – who would you want to team up with?
JG: Well, Kasey Kahne, because we're getting him next year... (laughs)
SBN: Ah! You skirted around the rules there, but that's fair.
JG: I'd put Bowyer on there. Hmm...am I a driver or am I an owner of this team?
SBN: You're a driver on the team.
JG: Well, then it doesn't matter to me!
SBN: You wouldn't care who your teammates were as a driver but you'd care as an owner?
JG: Yeah...I'd just want the best team. An owner wants the best teammates – for sponsors, for performance. We (drivers) need the information from our teammates to make our efforts stronger. You want to have valuable information.
So I guess in that sense, you want somebody you feel like you're getting good information from but also be able to get along with them. I'd put Kasey, Bowyer and probably (Tony) Stewart.
SBN: You brought a new model of driver personality into NASCAR when you showed up. But is there anybody you modeled yourself after when you were coming through the ranks?
JG: I was a big Rick Mears fan. He was fast and he won a lot, but he was always very gracious and humble. Just seemed like a really cool, down-to-earth guy.
Your personality is your personality. You can't change who you are. But I certainly looked up to Rick and I just liked his style, so I guess I wanted to try to be like that. Not to say that I achieved that, but that's my thought process of who I wish I could be.
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape you've made from the track to the airport after a race?
JG: You know, I saw that on your questions, but I don't have any good stories.
SBN: So you just take your time getting out of the track?
JG: Yeah, I don't rush. There are some guys that go back and take showers and wait a long time and there are some guys that run out the door as fast as they can. I just kind of take it as it is.
You know, back in the day when I drove out of all the races, it was a nightmare. However your day went out there on the racetrack, you'd get into race traffic and people are recognizing you and not paying attention to what they're doing. It was just impossible, chaotic. I didn't want to be in that situation. I probably hid in the back of cars and vans numerous times leaving Martinsville and those places, just because I didn't want to have to go through any of that.
These days, we're using a lot of helicopters to get out of the racetracks, so it's a lot more relaxing. You just get there when you can.
SBN: Obviously, you've met a zillion famous people. But is there anyone famous you'd like to meet who you haven't met yet?
JG: I've been asked this for years, and I always said Tom Hanks was somebody I'd love to meet – but I met him this year.
SBN: No kidding? Where?
JG: It was really cool. My wife and I were at an event after the Phoenix win, and I saw him and said hi to him. He couldn't have been a nicer guy.
SBN: Did you get the impression he knew anything about racing?
JG: I didn't even bring it up. I don't like to do that, like, 'Hey, here's who I am. Do you know who I am?' I just say hi, and if they know who I am, they go, 'Oh yeah...' and we start a conversation. If they don't, then I don't bother with it.
I try to think of the people who have come up to me over the years. The ones that I really respect and would actually want to continue a conversation with are usually the ones that handle it like that. Like, 'Hey, just wanted to say hi. I'm a fan, appreciate your work.' That's it.
SBN: So in other words, if somebody has to list off all their accomplishments when they meet you, it's not so impressive?
JG: Yeah. Or if they say, 'You might remember me. I met you in some situation where there were a hundred people there.' (laughs) Or when somebody says, 'You know my friend' or any of that stuff. Some people always want to try to have a story, but that's just not how I am.
SBN: I've been using your name for this question all year long, so I'll ask you the same thing. Last year, there was a Jamie McMurray-type season – a few huge wins but he missed the Chase – and a Jeff Gordon-type season – no wins, but made the Chase and contended. If you had to pick, which would you rather have?
JG: If you're talking about the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, I'd rather have that season than not win the championship. To me, it's either you win the championship or you win a handful of the biggest races.
SBN: Yeah, that's the choice. So you're saying there's no point in making the Chase and running ninth or something if you don't win any races.
JG: Right. That's a disappointment.
SBN: Everybody in this garage is here because they want to win. But where does your motivation to win come from? In other words, why do you want to win so badly?
JG: I can go back to the very first time when I started racing and I won a race, and there's just nothing more exhilarating than seeing that checkered flag wave and you're the first one to cross the finish line. It's just an amazing feeling. Once you experience that, you want to continue to experience it.
It gets harder and harder along the way, so when you experience it as you go up in the levels, it gets that much more meaningful and special and exciting. Especially at this level, where we have so many people working to make that effort happen. You're doing it because you appreciate their hard work, you know you couldn't do it without them and it's truly a team effort. I don't even know how to describe it, but you just get these incredible emotions and excitement inside of you from the adrenaline rush of winning that race.
SBN: How much does your personality differ from when you're inside the car to when you're standing here chatting?
JG: I'm pretty calm, cool, low-key for the most part outside the car. Inside the car, I'm like that until the heat of the moment. Then I get pretty fired up.
SBN: What do you mean by 'heat of the moment?' Is that the start of the race, or some incident that happens during the race?
JG: No, it's just the moment something happens. I get in the car, start the engine up, they drop the green flag – and I'm no different (than outside the car). I don't base what's going to happen in that race off of anything except what happens to that car when I go through Turns 1 and 2, then Turns 3 and 4. I just constantly evaluate it.
Now, you go into Turn 1 and somebody dives inside you three-wide at the green flag, that fires me up, you know? But I've always felt like one of the strong suits that I have – and I think this is one of the things that made me better under the old points system – is managing those moments like that. Staying calm, not letting it get the best of you and not just going after the guy to cause either a wreck or a rivalry or whatever.
I'll go, 'OK, that was stupid, but let's reset and go back to work.' I think over a 36-race schedule, the person that does that the best has a big advantage. So I think that was one of my strong suits – and it still is. It can apply in a 10-race Chase, but it works better over a lot of races.
You can't be out there and be competitive and not be intense. It gets intense. But my best days are when you don't hear me say much.
SBN: Yeah, I've heard some of the bad days.
JG: And I take things serious, too. I've got a new spotter, Jeff Dickerson, and he's a comedian. He's funny! But I've had to tell him several times: 'I love your humor. You make me laugh. But damn, dude – I'm focused and not thinking about jokes right now.' He can't help it, because that's just the way he is. And I've gotten used to it and I'll laugh at him, which is probably good for me because I'm usually taking things too serious.
SBN: You have a pretty awesome life, so I'm a little embarrassed to ask you this. But if you could switch lives with an athlete from another sport, who would it be?
JG: I always loved Joe Montana. I would have loved to been in his shoes. I've met him, and he and Rick Mears were the guys I just thought were badasses. They did all their talking on the field or on the track.
But with current athletes, just to experience somebody's situation, I'd love to be Shaun White. I mean, I did a little bit of skateboarding when I was younger and I do a little bit of snowboarding now – and I can't do any of the things he does. To fly through the air like that and land some of those things...he's living large right now, too. The kid has got it going on. To be able to go to (Summer) X Games and win on the vert ramp and then go do it in snowboarding, it's unbelievable.
SBN: If you could take a year away from NASCAR and go do whatever you wanted but come back knowing you had a ride guaranteed, would you ever want to do that?
JG: Where do I sign up?
SBN: OK! Well...you know, you could probably pull it off. Who wouldn't want to hire you when you came back?
JG: The problem is, what does the team do in the meantime? How do you ask your guys who work so hard for you to continue to stay there working and you go take a year off? And they're going to put somebody in there for one year? I mean, yeah, if you could have Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart come fill in for a year, I'm sure that'd be cool. If Rick Hendrick knew we'd get to keep a sponsor for a full year, then absolutely. But that's not reality.
If we're living in fantasy land, I'd do it. I think it'd make me a better driver. Who wouldn't want to do that, in any job? I mean, everybody needs time away. I don't know if it's a year, three months, six months; even the summer vacation you used to have in school.
SBN: Yeah, but you'd be surprised how many drivers this year have answered that question by saying they'd just want to keep racing.
JG: Well, they're not being honest. Or maybe they haven't gone out and experienced other things just for the experience. I mean, shoot...I'd pack my family up and move to France. We could do something completely different and travel around.
SBN: When you eventually decide to quit driving someday, what do you want your retirement story to say about you? Is your priority all the wins and championships, or is it important that you be recognized for your other contributions?
JG: You know, it's changed over the years. It always was purely about wins and championships and stats. And those things are important, because I think they show what I've contributed. And I'm proud of it.
But these days, as I've gotten older, being a dad and everything, I'm finding there are a lot of other things that are as important and more important. I get asked this question a little more these days – I never thought about it before and don't think about it until I get asked about it.
Call me simple-minded or whatever, but each year I plan my schedule out based around the races and testing and the team. Through the work I've done with my foundation, some great opportunities have come up and when they come up, we try to take advantage of them and do the best we can to raise more awareness and funding for those causes.
Aside from that, it's being the best dad and husband I can be. I don't want to make it anymore difficult than that. It's already challenging trying to do this. So you just want to be recognized for the effort you put into those things.
SBN: Let's say you're going to win the championship. Would you rather wrap it up after Phoenix or win it off Turn 4 of the last lap of the season at Homestead?
JG: OK, so I know for a fact I'm going to win it?
JG: I mean, the challenging thing about Homestead is you want to celebrate with your family and your friends when the moment happens. You want to enjoy it. A week or three weeks later, that whole spark or feeling is gone.
So, to me, I would rather win it at Phoenix and plan a big party at Homestead. I'd invite everybody I know and throw a big party. That's a great place to do a party. But you can't really plan anything knowing it's going to come down to the final lap and the final race – even though that would be very exciting. But if I know I'm going to win it, then I'll take the week of relaxation and party planning. (laughs)