Jeff Gordon heads into Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race as the series points leader, despite still being in search of his first win of the season. But on Wednesday, the four-time champion was honored for something else — the 20th anniverssary of his first Sprint (then-Winston) Cup Series win. He was victorious in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 1994.
Since his career began at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the final race of the 1992 Cup season, Gordon has accumulated 88-career wins, putting him third on the all-time wins list behind NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and David Pearson.
To commemorate the almost-anniversary of the milestone win, officials from Charlotte Motor Speedway honored Gordon at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Uptown Charlotte on Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, Gordon took time to participate in a video conference with the media to discuss his Cup career, the 2014 season and to preview the upcoming race at Kansas. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. Jeff, you joined Charlotte Motor Speedway this morning at the NASCAR Hall of Fame to celebrate the anniversary of your first Sprint Cup Series win, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. Can you talk a little bit about that race and your first trip to victory lane in the Sprint Cup Series?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, that was just a very special moment to relive. Such a great moment in my career. Hard to believe it’s 20 years ago. But what an amazing day to go to Charlotte in the 600, such a tough race, compete against the best guys.
Rusty was certainly very strong that day and the car to beat. Then Ray Evernham made a great two-tire call. We had a fast racecar, but that two-tire call made the difference.
To see the emotions that I went through because it meant so much, to commemorate it here at the Hall of Fame, was very, very special to go through. 20 years, wow, it’s hard to believe, but it’s been amazing.
Q. You have 88 trophies that belong to you. Where do you display them? Is your first trophy in a very prominent place either at your office or at home?
JEFF GORDON: That’s a great question. We built a new house a couple years ago. Something I’ve really never done at home was display really many trophies. If I had a shelf maybe in an office or somewhere, I might put one or two. The 600 from ’94 has always been a prominent trophy that I’ve displayed.
When we did this house, we made an area that has very, very important trophies to me. I have the four Cup trophies there. I have the first Brickyard, a couple helmets.
The 600 is in the house but it’s not currently being displayed there. It’s one that has always been the one that I’ve displayed, it just didn’t fit in there (laughter). I have to redesign that area so I can make sure it’s there.
I don’t have all 88, that’s for sure. Hendrick Motorsports, and at my office, we have all the trophies. The ones that have been very special to me are at my house.
Q. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years. Is it one you can still think about and remember vividly? How does that one rank in your mind?
JEFF GORDON: I can barely remember how we won Martinsville last year.
That’s why I love this event that I just did. They showed video from that day and some crucial moments. It really makes me want to go back and get the whole video and watch the race because it was such a special day. There are so many things that I don’t remember about that day.
I remember I started on the front row, that we had a good car. We led quite a few laps. But Rusty was the car to beat. Ray made that great call.
Even watching me coming down pit road for that final pit stop made me chuckle because they didn’t measure pit road speed the same way we do now so it looked like I was speeding, but they didn’t have a way to measure other than by a stopwatch.
I’d love to go back and relive the race because there are a lot of things that I don’t remember.
Q. Out here in the Bay Area, looking forward to the race in Sonoma in a month and a half. Speaking of walks down Memory Lane, you’ve won here five times in Sonoma. Take us back to your first victory there in ’98, what that win meant for you, what you remember from that day.
JEFF GORDON: The things that really stand out to me for Sonoma is, yeah, I grew up in Vallejo a few miles from there. I never went to that course. I always was on ovals or dirt tracks. It was a drag strip, as well. I never raced there. Never even got to make a lap there until I was preparing for my very first Cup race and went to the driving school out there. Immediately saw the challenges, all the fun that could be had there.
The first few years were just so challenging trying not to miss shifting, trying not to overdrive the track. We used to have the carrousel turn there. It was such a difficult corner to make. I remember being in the tire barrier on my side one year there during practice.
To me, my memories are getting through all those challenges and becoming more competitive on a road course like Sonoma. Obviously from ’93 to ’98, it took a while. It’s not an easy track to conquer.
Then we just went on an incredible tear to win those five races. I can’t say I remember all the details from that first race, though.
Q. You’re still a young guy, off to a great start this season. In the back of your mind, are you concerned that time is running short to win another championship?
JEFF GORDON: I mean, I know that time is running short. I can’t say I’m sitting here concerned about it. I’ve had an amazing career. I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought that I would. Then this year my focus is on what a great racecar and race team that we have.
I think it’s just part of my personality or maybe part of a racecar driver’s personality that I don’t look too far ahead. I worry about the things that I can control. Right now the things I can control is that racecar on the weekends, working as hard as I can with the team to get the best results.
We’re off to a great start. Right now I’m healthy. I’m in good shape. I’m having a lot of fun. We’re very competitive out there. That’s taking all of my attention. Besides the time I spend with my family, that’s where my focus is.
Not really thinking of anything else other than maybe the urgency of how important it is to win this season if you’re going to win the championship.
Q. You’ve won at Kansas twice previously. That’s going back to 2001, 2002. How different does this track race with the variable banking, especially since it went through a tough winter?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I’m excited to get there and see what the track has to offer, as well as with the new ride heights, the downforce that this car has this year. We seem to be excelling at a lot of different tracks, but the mile-and-a-half’s in particular.
Kansas has always been one of my favorite racetracks. When they repaved it, it moved a little further down my list. It seems like every year we go there, it ages, goes through the winter, gets back to the type of Kansas that I excel at, that I really like.
The transitions are all still there. The variable banking is always a plus. But what I’m most excited about, and this is true for every track we’re going to, is how good of a race team we have right now. Everywhere we go we have competitive cars. We don’t always start the weekend out that way. Some weekends we unload and we’re just fast and it stays that way throughout the whole weekend, and others we’ve had to really work at it.
To me, that’s the sign of a great team and that’s why I’m excited to go not only to Kansas this weekend but every track on the schedule.
Q. Earlier you talked about how well you did in the 600. You’ve had so much success at the track prior to that. You almost won the Winston Open in ’93. Does that give you any more confidence heading into the 600?
JEFF GORDON: You mean in ’94 when we won it?
JEFF GORDON: Definitely. My first pole came at Charlotte in October of ’93. I won two Nationwide races in ’92. That track was always something, from the first time I made laps around it, I enjoyed doing it. It was a fun, fast racetrack. I feel like it’s always been one of my better tracks.
Yeah, I definitely have confidence from previous history heading into that ’94 600. The car was great that weekend. It gave me good confidence to know that we had a shot at winning.
Q. Do you remember thinking, This is a track I might win my first race at, or was it a surprise when it happened?
JEFF GORDON: I don’t remember. I don’t know. I just remember that we were running well. I think at that point I lacked a little bit of confidence of whether I had what it took to not just run 600 miles at Charlotte but to get a Cup car into Victory Lane. I felt like we were getting closer and closer. Even when you get close, you’re like, yeah, but it’s not a win.
From that point on, it solidified our team and myself and gave me confidence that, okay, I’ve got what it takes, we have what it takes, we can go win races from that point on. I don’t remember what my mindset was prior to that race.
Q. We’re basically 10 races into a 26-race season. Do you sense any panic from other teams throughout the garage area to get a win before Richmond in August?
JEFF GORDON: I think we’ve seen a lot of first-time winners so far in the season. To me there’s the teams that understand how important it is to win not just to get in the Chase but to have a shot at the championship. Those bonus points that come along with winning are very, very important.
The ability to win, to show that you’re a team that can win as well as win the championship is extremely important. I feel like you need to get a win prior to that, prior to the start of the Chase.
It’s not the only way to get in. There’s other ways to get into the Chase. I don’t think anyone is in panic mode unless they’re outside the top 10 in points.
I would say anyone outside the top 8 or 10 in points now that hasn’t had a win, yeah, there’s definitely going to be in a little more urgency and, as you call it, panic mode.
Q. You just mentioned the Chase elimination, changes. Some of the drivers that haven’t won think it doesn’t change strategy at all. Yet when some of these guys win, it seems like it changes their track and pit strategy. You’ve been so close to winning. What is your take on that? Do you think your take in strategy will change once you do get that win?
JEFF GORDON: I think anybody that says that winning a race isn’t going to change their mindset and strategy moving forward is only fooling themselves. There is no doubt. I saw a change in the 88 team after they won Daytona, just that comfort and ease knowing, okay, we have this win in our corner, and now we can be more aggressive with things that we do to get that second win. I’ve seen it with Harvick, the 2 car, others as well.
I’ve never seen winning be so important as it has this year. It doesn’t stop everybody from trying just as hard to win. We’re all out there working as hard as we can to win. When you get that one win under your belt, I think that one win will get you into the Chase, two wins is for sure going to guarantee you a shot in the Chase.
But when you get that one or two wins, it just puts you in a place where now it doesn’t really matter where you’re at in points, and it’s just all about getting those bonus points and be the No. 1 seed going into the Chase. You can be more aggressive with everything that you do from here on out.
So I think that’s a lot of leverage to have as a team. That’s why we feel some urgency to get that win because we want to be in that same place. We have been very, very close, so that’s why we’re excited about those opportunities coming up that we can get a win at.
Q. Kansas has produced its share of bizarre finishes over the years. Is there a reason for that or is it just kind of circumstances?
JEFF GORDON: Give me some examples.
Q. Biffle running out of fuel, being passed by Jimmie and Bowyer. Carl’s dive bomb move. Tony Stewart racing to the finish out of gas. Last fall’s race wasn’t exactly standard either.
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I mean, I think we’ve seen a trend of fuel mileage becoming more and more important, saving fuel, track position. Probably the most important thing we’ve seen on mile-and-a-half’s in general, but especially on a repave that has become even more important because tires are hard, to be durable, a little bit harder to pass.
That’s why I’m excited to get to Kansas to see the tire combination with the track now that it’s aged some, as the groove has moved up, how well you can pass, how important track position is going to be.
Those things start to really paint the picture for your weekend for how hard you’re going to focus on fuel mileage, pit strategy, two tires, no tires, fuel only. The speeds, the tire wear and the ability to pass will all start to play out as we get to the race on Saturday night. Plus it’s a night race so that’s going to change things slightly as well.
I’ve just always enjoyed Kansas. As I mentioned, the transitions are really nice, straightaway into the corners. When you have nice transitions like that, nice banking, just a great racetrack like Kansas, it allows you to get more aggressive as a driver, get more aggressive with the setups, gives you a little more comfort and ease to know you can make a move like Carl made. He dove in there, knew he wasn’t going to make the corner, but he knew he had room to slide up. I think he probably thought, Man, I wish I wouldn’t have carried quite so much speed in there.
Kansas is one of those tracks that offers that type of racing and I think we’ll see more of it this weekend.
Q. The Sonoma race, the 26th running of the race, seems like guys used to dread coming out to the wine country, weren’t thrilled about it. Now it seems like the attitudes have completely changed. Do you agree with that? If so, why?
JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I definitely think so. I think there was a switch in the mindset, in the trend, I would say in the mid ’90s to late ’90s where a road course, if you were going on a road course, it didn’t really mean a whole lot towards the championship, or if you were bad on a road course. The challenges you face on the road courses, the amount of effort and work that goes into it as a team and driver, sometimes guys looked at it as it wasn’t worth it.
For me, I liked the challenge. Our team liked the challenge. We were focused on making better brake packages, transmissions better, different gearing, all those things that come along with being good on road courses, and the most important thing: keeping it on the course.
I think that now for the championship it’s an opportunity to win, but even before this year winning being so important, you couldn’t give up a race. There became a time where the competition got too great. You could no longer give up a race, where you used to be able to give one up and still manage to win the championship. Now you’re not able to do that.
People are more focused on putting energy into it. Now you’re seeing a far more competitive field at those races.
Q. You’ve won that race five times, which is the most ever. You haven’t gotten back into Victory Lane in quite a few years there. How badly do you want to get back into Victory Lane? What would a sixth win mean for you out here in the wine country?
JEFF GORDON: I love it out there. Being from there, I’ve got family and friends. Being in the wine business with the Jeff Gordon label, I love it out there. It’s a beautiful area. I’ve really gotten into that business, the wine making, what it’s like to go through it. I admire all those great growers and farmers as well as wineries out there that produce great wine.
Then there’s this awesome racetrack over there in Sonoma that we’ve been successful at. I feel we’ve had cars capable of winning there the last couple years. We just got to keep pushing forward, keep pushing hard, doing the things we know what to do on those tracks, trying to improve, and hopefully we can get back to Victory Lane there soon.