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Gordon On Racing: I Just Want A Championship

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 24 2010

Jeff Gordon says he can never have a classic rivalry against Jimmie Johnson. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series in which RacinToday.com’s Rick Minter talks with four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. During a sit-down interview conducted last weekend, Minter and Gordon had a wide-ranging talk about everything from racing cars to rearing children. Today Gordon discusses rivalries, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR’s fan base and the “Southern” influence on the sport.

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

As our interview continued, I pointed out to Gordon that in my younger days, the two larger-than-life figures in the sport were Richard Petty and David Pearson, who finished first and second 63 times and wrecked just once.

“Same with me and Earnhardt,” Gordon quickly responded, almost finishing my sentence for me. “We rarely wrecked together. We ran first and second a lot and battled for the lead many times.”

And like Pearson and Petty, Earnhardt and Gordon also had a high-profile wreck at Daytona, as he pointed out.

I asked Gordon what it would take to have a Petty-Pearson type rivalry today.

“What makes a good rivalry is the fans on their side and against the other guy, the boos and the cheers when the race is going on and in the introductions,” he said.

He went on to say that the two rivals would need to be almost polar opposites.

“You have to have the black and white,” he said. He held out  his hands to illustrate: “One over here and represents something more conservative or younger, whatever it may be. Then this one over there represents the core fan, the good ol’ boys and people who have been following the sport for years.”

So can he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson ever be rivals?

“Never,” he said. “We won’t. Jimmie will have a rival – whoever beats him on a consistent basis and keeps him from winning the championship.”

And then Gordon added some things that sounded a little surprising, considering the teammate connection.

“That will be good for the sport,” he said of the prospect of a driver derailing Johnson’s championship run. “Somebody’s waiting for that and looking for that. That person is going to be a hero.”

I asked Gordon how badly he wants to beat Johnson, thinking about the emotion he showed after losing to him at Las Vegas earlier this season.

“I just want to win the championship,” he said. “I think one of the most disappointing things about Vegas was not only did we not win the race, but we let Jimmie get the win.

“That was big to us, and it’s big to everybody out there. Everybody wants to beat those guys because they’ve been so good.”

Veteran promoted Humpy Wheeler has said for years that what NASCAR needs to shore up its core crowd is for a son of the South to rise up and take the sport by storm. Gordon agreed, in a way, that the Southern influence is mostly missing today. But he pointed out some possibilities for a revival.

“Clint Bowyer, even though he’s from the Midwest, grew up on dirt tracks. He fits that (image) to me, and he’s having a year that he can stand out. And even though (Kevin) Harvick is from California, he has some of that too. I don’t think it’s the Southern roots thing; I think it’s what you represent and who you are and how you go about it.”

So could another Southern driver like Sterling Marlin or Bill Elliot or even a Dale Earnhardt, who first came on the scene as country as a turnip green, make it today?

“They’re going to have to win a lot, be really spectacular on the track,” Gordon said. “Sponsors are driving the sport. It’s gotten expensive, and you have to have a sponsor.”

He said sponsors often prefer marketability over driving talent.

Gordon said some sponsors say: “We’d rather have this guy, even if he doesn’t win as much because we can market him. That’s the tough balancing question. The car owners are looking for a guy that can win, and they try to figure out how to sell him and make him marketable.”

Gordon said he takes particular pride in the fact that he got his job at Hendrick Motorsports without having a sponsor as part of the deal.

“Rick Hendrick hired me without a sponsor, and that meant the world to me because that told me that’s what this series does,” he said. “I still think that over any other series out there, that’s still the number one priority in NASCAR – can someone drive?

“I hope it always stays that way. But it’s expensive and you either close your doors or you get a sponsor.”

I asked Gordon how the fan base had changed in his years as a Cup driver. He said that while NASCAR had gained large numbers of casual fans, he still appreciates the old core crowd.

“It’s a sport that appeals to a lot of different people but that avid, ‘I’m going on a four- or five-day camping trip to the track with my buddies,’ still exists,” he said. “That’s one of the things everybody recognizes now with the economy and some of the things that have gone on there.  We can’t obsolete those fans. We’ve got to make sure it’s still affordable for them. Those are the fans that will be here forever. They passed it down for generations.”

Coming Thursday: Gordon weighs in on the surprises so far in the current season, parenthood,  points racing and his place in NASCAR history.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 24 2010