Following the Sept. 7 Federated Auto Parts 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, Jeff Gordon was on the outside look in as far as the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup went. He finished out NASCAR’s regular season (the first 26 of 36 races) just one point behind Joey Logano and outside the top-10. Without a win and outside the top-10, Gordon didn’t look to be in the Chase.
Fast forward to Sept. 13, which just happened to be Friday the 13th, and Gordon is in the Chase after NASCAR deemed actions by Michael Waltrip Racing, Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports as inappropriate. NASCAR had already kicked Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase, replacing him with Ryan Newman. By Friday, after NASCAR decided that MWR, Penske and FRM had all played a part in manipulating the Richmond race results, and therefore the Chase field, it was determined by the sanctioning body that Jeff Gordon was unfairly excluded from the Chase. To remedy the situation, NASCAR opted to expand this year’s championship field to 13 drivers, adding Gordon.
After his addition to the Chase field on Friday, Jeff Gordon spoke with the media about the controversies of the past week and being added to the Chase. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. Jeff, it’s been an eventful day for you, just talk a little bit about that and your outlook for Sunday’s race here at Chicagoland Speedway?
JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, we came into the day really just focused on doing what we do. This is actually a really – had a really great race going here last year and had our issues. So, to me, that was all we were focused on doing was putting together another solid race regardless of what was going on. Of course, it was hard to not hear rumblings about what may occur, what may not occur. We just tried not to get our hopes up or get our mind focused on that.
But I’ll admit, it’s been a rough week. It was a lot of up-and-downs of emotions for this entire team this week. They’ve been through a lot. They never gave up. Not only Saturday night, but this entire week, and I’m proud of that. I’m very appreciative, very thankful to be in, and I know it’s under the most unbelievable circumstances I’ve ever been a part of in my racing career, and I wish that all of this hadn’t happened. I wish that we could have just raced for it on Saturday night, but that wasn’t the case.
Now here we are as a 13th car and in. Now we just try to take that opportunity and make the most of it.
Q. Number one, you’ve seen a lot of things in NASCAR, but I imagine you’ve never seen anything like this before. So did you at any point think you had a shot at getting this overturned this way and getting into the Chase? Two, earlier this week you tweeted that you felt bad for Martin, so in any sense do you kind of wish there had been a ruling that maybe he could have gone into the Chase?
JEFF GORDON: Well, what I felt bad about with Martin was the circumstances which he got in under then for that to be taken away. To be on that stage after the race is over, to feel like that pressure was off, that they made it in. I know what that’s like. He drove his butt off. I raced with him in the closing laps and he raced hard. You could tell what he was racing for. The guy didn’t do anything wrong. For that, I felt bad for him.
But we didn’t get to see the race play out. We don’t know what the results were going to be because of the circumstances of that spin changed everything. That, to me, is the only reason I’m accepting being in in the 13th, because under normal circumstances I would say no, that’s not right.
But under these circumstances, I feel there is enough reason for us to be in. I know how hard we worked and that we earned the right to be in.
Q. When did you find out and what were your emotions? I talked to Alan Gustafson earlier, and he said that he felt even to the closing laps that you guys were Chase contenders and should have been in and expected that to be the case.
JEFF GORDON: I found out when you guys found out. Well, maybe not. Maybe you guys found out before me. I was watching on FOX Sports One. That’s when I found out. You know, we haven’t had the best of seasons, and I think that’s not an unknown thing. We all know what we’ve gone through this year. But we went through a lot last year, and we got to play it out to the final lap of the race last year and we made it in. This year we had that same scenario being played out and were fighting to the checkered flag and basically doing the similar thing to somebody else’s misfortune. The 22 was just having a bad day and we were going to make it in.
So to me, the previous races, this team really started to turn the corner and started putting a string of races together that really put us in that position as well as taking advantage of that opportunity that was there Saturday night. Even though we got two laps down and had our issues and had to fight back from it, we were still doing what we needed to do. That, right now, is the thing that stands out the most to me of how proud I am that this team just never, ever gives up. That’s what we did in the race on Saturday.
I’ll be honest, by Tuesday of this week, I was letting go of my anger and the things that I felt like kept us from being in it and was ready to move on. I had the most unbelievable support from my fans this week.
That’s the beauty of Twitter. We all know Twitter can work both ways on you, and in this case what I love about social media is years ago back when I won my last championship, I had no connection to the fans to this level other than being at the racetrack, going to an autograph session, going to an event for sponsors. And now I’m able to see what everybody was thinking and what they’re saying and it’s unbelievable. I never felt so much support that I did. And also anger as well.
Like our fans were feeling it right along with me, and it was pretty wild and crazy to watch how that was all playing out this week. I was ready to move on and when I saw the stuff with the 22 and the 38, I was like, hmm, what’s going to come of this? And it brought some new hope.
Q. Where do you think the integrity of the sport stands and what do you want to find out tomorrow at that meeting and how vocal will you be?
JEFF GORDON: One thing I want to bring up on this is I’m excited about that meeting tomorrow. I am. Even though I think we’re going to get reprimanded a little bit because it doesn’t all lie on NASCAR. We all have a responsibility in this. But we are fierce competitors. I don’t think a fierce competitor can ever be torn down by trying to do everything they possibly can to win a race, to be in a championship battle, to win the championship and in some ways even to help out their teammates who helped them get to that point.
That is what you’ve got to understand. It’s not just giving up something for a friend or something like that. You work as a team.
In our situation, it’s one of the most unique because of the multi-car teams. It is one of the most unique. So because of that competitive drive, it pushes us sometimes to do things that even we question. I think that through all of this I think that, yes, the integrity of the sport has been put at question. I think we have one of the greatest sports that exists. To see our integrity get questioned is very upsetting to me, and I think we, along with NASCAR, have to solve this. I’m glad that we are going to get this opportunity to do this.
I wish it had not happened under these circumstances. I really do wish we could have come to this conclusion sooner, but sometimes that’s just not the case. But we are going to move forward and we are going to be a better sport tomorrow and on Sunday and in the future because of this circumstance.
You’ve got to take a negative and turn it into a positive, and I believe that’s what’s going to happen.
Q. I know your fans were just so upset and stood up for you big time, like I’ve never seen. You were angry, we knew that. Did you contact NASCAR and ask them for anything or you found out about it through the media. But were you that angry that you got involved in saying I want something out of this?
JEFF GORDON: No. I heard from NASCAR about what the penalties were going to be on whatever it was – Monday.
As I’m sure that, you know, they were reaching out to probably a lot of individuals, especially those that probably were somehow affected by this. You know, I gave my opinion. Some of it I agreed with; some of it I didn’t agree with, and I told them that via text. Then I called Mike Helton on Wednesday to tell him that I know he has tough decisions to make and we might not always agree with them, but I support him and I’m ready to go to Chicago and go race.
We didn’t talk about anything else other than that. That’s it. That’s all I’ve done this week, and a few Tweets here and there. And my very supportive wife.
Q. That’s more than she’s tweeted in the last six months too.
JEFF GORDON: My wife is very passionate and supportive. Trust me, I said no to her a lot more than the ones I said yes to. So I’m just glad that these days she seems to at least run it by me before she says it. Not every time, but…
Q. You talked about you guys will probably get reprimanded tomorrow. NASCAR will address with the participants what it expects to see going forward. For the fans mostly and even anyone who follows the sport right now, there seems to be a lot of doubt about what or maybe some growing doubt about what they see on the track, is it legitimate. NASCAR, of course, will address with you guys your actions going forward. How difficult will it be do you think to undo that skepticism that may have crept in the minds of fans or even kind of casual people who just happen to pay attention?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, you know, when it comes down to making it in the Chase and it comes down to – it seems like it’s the final race where it really comes into play and then the final race of the season for the championship, there is no doubt that for as many years as I’ve been part of the sport there are circumstances in which a teammate can try to help out. If that is you’ll race a guy maybe a little bit hard or move over for somebody. I mean, that’s just kind of been standard practice in the sport.
But it continues to get more and more competitive. There is more on the line. There is more prestige, more money, just more competition that is driving the sport all the time. As long as things like that have been acceptable– and I love what Mike said in that press conference, there are times when things need to change. This has probably been coming for a couple years now and needed to change sooner.
But I just liked the fact that some things are going to change because all we all want to do is race our guts out every single lap. None of us want to go out there and give up a spot or race somebody different because our teammate is running for a championship. We want to go out there racing for every position, every lap, as hard as we can.
But anybody in our position as a team owner, when you know what all is on the line, as a driver, as a crew chief, you know there are extreme circumstances where we’re in that position to be able to help. That, to me, doesn’t necessarily make it right, and there are boundaries still even with those moves. But the boundaries have been continuing to be pushed further and further and lines are being crossed. I’m more looking forward to the future than looking and bringing back things in the past.
Q. You touched on it a little bit, but clearly a lot of this was magnified because it was Richmond, and as you mentioned this type of thing has been going on for a while. How concerned are you that at the meeting tomorrow we may go too far the other direction and not be able to let a teammate pull up on your bumper and get paper off or in the middle of the season not fight so hard for a teammate to get by? Is there a concern this is a very fine line and it needs to be gotten exactly right?
JEFF GORDON: There is a concern for that, and I think it’s a good question. But there is more concern to me that we get to Homestead and have this come up again. So it needs to be addressed. Usually what happens in a situation that gets to this magnitude, there is going to be an overreaction and you understand that and accept that. It might need to be modified over time, but I think right now an overreaction is probably the acceptable reaction.
Q. Monday night you noted that you felt like the person that triggered the entire chain of events here got nothing. What would have been an acceptable penalty to you to the 15 car? And I’ll stop there. What is an acceptable penalty to you?
JEFF GORDON: I do see it differently when it comes to that. I do think that event is what started all this. What really magnified this to a whole other level. I also know that NASCAR – I can’t see what all they’re dealing with. I’m not in that room. I’m not hearing all of the different sides to it. So I do give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to these types of decisions because they have a lot to think about and what affects those decisions. But to me, yeah, it seemed like they did an overall penalty for MWR that sort of dealt with it but not really, and turned the focus over to what they could prove with the 55 and the radio communication.
But what’s acceptable? I don’t know. But something. I mean, me a 50-point fine pre-Chase was no penalty. That is all I was upset about. I felt like it was pretty clear. I felt like that’s what started all this and that didn’t really get addressed.
Q. Do you think it was purposeful?
JEFF GORDON: That’s going to be addressed tomorrow though.
Q. Do you think it was purposeful?
JEFF GORDON: I do, yeah. I feel that way.
Q. You were talking about integrity. Beyond just being pro-active and having this meeting tomorrow and coming out and trying to explain what’s going to be different, what else can the sport do to reestablish what might have been lost and what do you think has been lost? Is it just a matter of NASCAR saying we’re addressing this? We’re going to try to fix it? Does that go a ways in terms of restoring that?
JEFF GORDON: No, I think actions speak louder than words always. It’s us going on Sunday and racing as hard as we possibly can for every position, battling it out for a championship, and making sure that when we leave here on Sunday there is no radio communication that the media gets ahold of that they’ve recorded that can say anything otherwise, other than we’re out there with the intensity and just the passion and excitement that this sport is built on, that it’s known for, and what it’s all about.
I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be the case prior to this meeting, but certainly after this meeting I think it’s going to be clear for the next ten weeks and on.
Q. Now that you’re in the Chase and playing with house money, so to speak, can you write the rest of the script and win the thing?
JEFF GORDON: I always like to say that you’ve got to walk before you can run. But I will say this has lit a fire under us. I mean, just to go through what we went through Saturday night. Really, I look at last year too. We went through that wild and crazy race and made it in the Chase under those circumstances. We came here ready to go.
I loved the way we handled ourselves, even though we had the throttle issue. We were running third or fourth in that race, and to me we had a shot at either winning or Top 5. And in some funny way this has kind of given us that same fire that we had last year. And we have ten or at least eight, I’d say, good racetracks that are in the Chase that I really like, that we run well at, and it starts right here in Chicago. This is a good track for us. We qualified well. New Hampshire is a great track for us. Martinsville is a great track for us. Obviously, Homestead is a great track. We ran great in Charlotte. I mean, I would say Kansas and Phoenix are the two that are probably on our radar that we need to do better at. Texas is another good track for us.
So I’m excited. I know we haven’t shown it yet this year, but this team is ready to show it now. So I think that’s the one thing is when you get yourself in this position, you want to show the world and our racing community, the ones that support us and the ones that didn’t, that we belong here and there is a reason why we’re in this thing.
Q. Jeff, we hear a lot of stories in the garage area through the years. From your personal side of things, over 20-plus years of racing, have you ever been helped by a teammate? Has a teammate ever helped you? What is acceptable and what is not?
JEFF GORDON: Absolutely. Absolutely, I’ve helped a teammate by either helping him at Talladega or helping him by – I mean, I’m trying to think in my mind thinking of a circumstance where somebody said move over for this person. I don’t remember that, but I’m sure it has happened because honestly it hasn’t been out of line, in my opinion. It’s been sort of a this is what happens, especially in championships. If you’re not in it, you see what you can do to help your teammate.
But you don’t go cause a caution. You don’t go wreck another guy out there to win the championship for them. There are certain lines, and I think that the lines have been, obviously, crossed in this situation.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR