Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues with Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR champion who drives for Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon spoke with us last weekend at Watkins Glen.
SBN: I've been asking each driver what percent of their career races they remember, but I'd like to ask you what percent of your wins you remember.
JG: If you give me a specific race we won, I can tell you a lot about it. But without that, it might take five minutes. I can tell you about the first two. Wait a minute – the third win, I believe was Atlanta in 1995. I can tell you I won seven races and the championship that year, but I'm not sure where else we won at that year.
SBN: Well, let's say you walk by some random trophy in your house. Can you remember the race if you see the trophy?
JG: There was a Bristol trophy from like 2004 at our (Hendrick Motorsports) debrief the other day in Charlotte. I was looking at it going, "Did I win that? Maybe Kyle Busch won that?" I couldn't tell you who won it.
I have a terrible memory, by the way. I have an awful memory.
SBN: Really? Like names, birthdays, that kind of thing?
JG: Oh yeah, all that. If it's not on my calendar, I'm done. I've had (public relations representative Jon Edwards) call me before to do MRN (radio) at 7:30, and it's like 6:30 and he says, "Hey man, don't forget you've got MRN." I'm like, "Yeah, man, I got it." (Gordon shrugs to indicate he forgot to call) Then he calls back and says, "Where are you at? Why didn't you call?" I'm like, "Oops!"
My wife doesn't believe it when I tell her I have an awful memory. She just thinks I'm not listening. (Laughs) It just takes things to jog my memory, and then I've got it. But just pulling things out of thin air, I'm not very good at that.
SBN: I'll have to keep that in mind for future interviews.
JG: You know what? It works to my advantage a lot of times because it allows me to move past things very easily. Unfortunately, I move past some of the good moments, too.
SBN: What's the first win you got in any form of motorsports?
JG: First win ever? It would have been a Quarter Midget race in Rio Linda, Calif. That's where I first started racing. But I couldn't tell you the exact moment. I have visions of the car and my helmet, but I can't visualize the actual race and taking the checkered flag. I mean, I was 5! (Laughs)
SBN: Who is a clean driver you really enjoy racing with in NASCAR?
JG: Mark Martin. Bill Elliott was always like that as well. Man, things are different now. Track position is so important. I'd say Tony (Stewart), too. He's the kind of guy that gets it. He realizes if you're faster, he knows he's got to work on his car and find something to make him better. It's not about fighting – unless we're in the closing laps of the race, of course. If you're halfway through the race and you run Tony down, he's going to work with you. And I race him the same way.
SBN: On the opposite side of that, who is a driver you always seem to have a hard time with?
JG: You actually think I'm going to answer that, that's funny! (Laughs) Well, let's see...who's not out there now that I can answer? Maybe Robby Gordon? (Laughs) I can't mention anybody out there now, because it just doesn't do me any good.
All I will say is that today it is different. My first eight-to-10 years in the series, if a guy was faster than you, you really did a lot more give-and-take – unless it was for the win. These days, what happens is a guy might run you down, and you race him hard and run his line a little bit, and all the sudden he fades. So you'll give him maybe a couple laps, and then if he's still on you, you might get out of his way.
I think the philosophy has really turned now that you just can't give up an inch, you can't give up a position, because it's so hard to get it back. Usually the only guys I feel who (give-and-take) are guys who have been in the sport for awhile. The new guys don't do it at all. They don't give an inch. Not at all.
SBN: What's your personal code of conduct on the track?
JG: I try to race guys the way they race me. Like me and Martin Truex always used to get along, and I ran into him at Sonoma – totally my fault – and he's raced me differently ever since. I don't blame him. I don't think he's a big fan of mine. And that's fine; I deserve that because I made a mistake that sticks with him. So he and I, we now race one another really hard. And that's just the way it is.
But other than those instances where you had a run-in with a guy that sparked something, however a guy races me is how I race him. In that case, I seem to have a pretty good memory of those things – and a real good memory of when it hasn't gone well for me. (Laughs)
SBN: Do you keep a mental list of people you owe for on-track payback?
JG: I wouldn't say I go through and check it off before every race. But there's no doubt when I see a car out there, I think, "You know what? I still haven't gotten you back for 'X' and 'X' or whatever. The last thing you want to be doing is racing me like this right now." I say that to myself, absolutely.
And I try to keep a mental note the other way, too. If I got into somebody, whether it was by accident or not by accident, I'm going to keep that in mind – because if they're thinking the same way, I need to know when I need to give them a little more and when I need to push the issue.
But I'm not talking about closing laps here. The closing laps are different. You've got a lot of different things going through your mind throughout that long race. There are times when it's not worth it, and there are times when it is worth it.
SBN: If you could turn back time and team with somebody from the past, who would you like to be teammates with?
JG: To me, I want to team up with guys I never raced with to see what made them so good – like Richard Petty and David Pearson. Those would be the first two guys on my list, because I'd like to know: How good were they? How smart were they? How aggressive were they? How good was their equipment? You know, those would be the first things on my mind.
SBN: When is the last time you got nervous about anything?
JG: I get nervous about stuff all the time. I think that's natural, whether it be a late restart, whether it's going to rain...
SBN: You get nervous to the point of butterflies in those situations?
JG: Oh...no. I'd say the last time I was that nervous was when my two children were born – when my son was born. Just nervous for my wife, nervous for our child. That's real nervousness, where there's nothing I can do and I have no control over what's going to happen, with the baby coming. That's true, pure nerves that wrench in your stomach.
Because in the race car, you're thinking, "OK, I want to get a good restart here. I want to win this race, I want to do this and that." Like at Martinsville on that restart (when Clint Bowyer took out Gordon and Jimmie Johnson), I knew we were sitting ducks. So was I nervous? Yeah. I was thinking about going through the motions and getting through Turn 1 the best I could. Some drivers might not say they're nervous in that situation, but I am. Maybe just "anxious" might be a better way to describe the situation.
SBN: So you knew something like that could happen on the Martinsville restart?
JG: Oh yeah. Absolutely. And not necessarily from what was going to happen behind us, but just racing Jimmie on the outside. I was thinking, "Just get into Turn 1 without locking up anything and overdriving the corner, but yet I've got to be aggressive enough to get in there good. Then I've got to protect what's happening behind me."
Now, what I did not know was all those guys came in to pit and had much fresher tires. I did not know that. So if I had known that, I would have absolutely known what was going to happen. I probably wouldn't have been as nervous. I would have just been like, "Here we go!" (Laughs)
Looking back on it now, I don't think we were going to win that race unless they wrecked behind us coming to the white and Bowyer hadn't quite cleared me yet. I mean, we had 80 laps on our tires? Those guys had none. There's a huge discrepancy. You might be able to get a half-lap in without getting passed, but there's no way you could do two laps. We needed two or three or four cars behind us on the same strategy as us. So not knowing that, I was caught up in racing Jimmie and not making a mistake to let anybody else get by me.
SBN: You meet a lot of fans and do a lot of appearances, and sometimes fans can ask awkward or uncomfortable questions. Do you have any stories along those lines?
JG: Oh, my memory. I gotta go get Edwards. I usually tell him about that stuff. (Leaves room and calls to Edwards, his longtime PR rep). Edwards! Come up here, I need your memory. (Edwards comes in)
JE: What's up? By the way, the third race you won was Rockingham, not Atlanta.
JG: Awwwwwww, shit! I was wrong! Well then my fourth win was Atlanta.
JG: Didn't I tell you recently about some fan asking some really strange question I'd never been asked before?
JE (shakes head no): The last one I remember was the dead heat question.
JG: That was good. That's a cool story, so I'll tell that one. I was at a Pepsi meet-and-greet, and some 7-year-old kid asked me, "What happens if there's a tie?" So it got me thinking: "Wow. What really would happen if there was a true tie?" This little boy wanted to know if NASCAR had a plan for it. I couldn't answer his question, so I asked the question in the drivers meeting at Daytona.
(NASCAR vice president Robin) Pemberton had just been up there, and he'd said, "Good luck, guys. Unfortunately, there's only one winner." So I said, "Well what if there's not just one winner?" It made for a funny drivers meeting, because (race director David) Hoots started to say, "We have things in place..."
I said, "No, no. What if they are exactly tied? What if by the transponder and the camera, you can't tell who won that race?" And I still don't know if he answered the question.
SBN: I think he said that situation was impossible and they had tools to figure it out.
JG: I don't think it's impossible, I think you gotta be prepared for it. But to come from a young kid, I thought that was great. I love that. I love getting stumped like that on something I don't know.
SBN: Well, since you don't have an awkward moment story yet, I hope it doesn't come from something that happens in your charity "Kick-It" kickball game in Atlanta. Are you good at kickball?
JG: You know what? What I've learned is it's just like in softball: It's not how hard you hit it or how far, it's just about putting it in the right spot. I'm hoping I have better direction and placement on my kicking than in softball.
It's been awhile since I've played kickball, so I'm still a little unsure of how I'm going to get somebody out if I need to do it. I don't want to be launching these kickballs at somebody and take them out! (Laughs) I think I'll probably be doing the running-and-tagging method.
SBN: I know you're probably going to try and do something important after you retire – like curing cancer – but if you had to choose one of these jobs, would you rather be a NASCAR broadcaster or high-ranking NASCAR official?
JG: Oh man, oh man, oh man. There's days I'd like to be over there (in the NASCAR hauler) helping out with some of the decision-making and understanding the thought process. There's a part of me that would like to experience that for a short period of time. (Laughs)
But no, I'd pick broadcaster. I enjoy watching the racing and commentating from the couch myself. Twitter gives me a little bit of that ability to do that, which is kind of fun. Doing it for an entire race, I think that's got to be pretty challenging. But I think it could be fun.
SBN: What's a question you get asked a lot that you're tired of answering?
JG: Probably something that has to do with the "Drive For Five." Whoever came up with that slogan, I'd like to shoot them right now. That wasn't you, Edwards, was it?
JE: Wasn't me!
JG: It's just because we haven't gotten it. It's been 12 years since we won a championship and came up with the whole Drive For Five thing, thinking we were going to get it. Now it's "Drive For Five is back alive!" and "Go get that fifth championship!" It's not so much being asked a question, it's just every time I hear somebody say, "Drive For Five," I'm like, "Oh gosh. Why bring that up?" (Laughs)
SBN: I've been asking each person to give me a question for the next person. Last week was Ron Fellows, and he wanted to know what you like and dislike about road course racing.
JG: I mean, I like a lot more than I dislike. I love just getting away from an oval and doing something completely different. I really enjoy how you have to get into the braking zones, manage the braking and the tire slipping and doing a couple downshifts at the same time. It's fun and cool and a nice challenge in trying to find speed around the track and recognize where you're good and where you need to be better.
What I don't like about it? The only thing is fuel-mileage racing. It seems like on a road course, the strategy is all based off fuel strategy. That part of it takes a little bit of the fun away. But it makes it more challenging for the engineers, and it's fun when it works out. But you want to be out there on four fresh tires and pushing the car as hard as you can after every pit stop, and that's what you do most of the time on an oval. On a road course, you'd rather pit in your pit window under green than under caution.
SBN: The next interview is going to be with Kyle Petty. Do you have any questions for him?
JG: When I came into the sport, he was a rock star. He even had the rock star look, with a little Yanni mixed in there. (Laughs) But Kyle was so cool, and he was so good to me. I just remember he was driving that Mello Yello car for Felix (Sabates), and that car was bad to the bone and they were fast.
Especially when they went to Rockingham, they absolutely dominated that place. So I want to know: What was he or that team or that car doing to be so fast at Rockingham?
NEXT WEEK: Kyle Petty answers Jeff Gordon's question and 11 more
ARCHIVE: Catch up on all the 12 Questions interviews from this season