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Q and A: Gordon – “Today Is An Emotional Day”

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 22 2015

Jeff Gordon said of the 2015 season: This is it. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

On Thursday morning, Jeff Gordon announced to his Hendrick Motorsports team that 2015 would be the last year that he competed full time in the Sprint Cup Series.

Thursday afternoon, the 43-year-old driver held a teleconference with the media to explain his decision and to take question about it.

Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and the winner of 82 races, was joined on the teleconference with Rick Hendrick, his team owner.

What follows is a transcript of that teleconference, which began with Gordon and Hendrick making opening statements:

JEFF GORDON: Yeah, this is certainly something that I’ve been thinking about for years. Rick and I have talked about for a number of years. You’re always trying to, when you get to this point in your career and you’ve done as much as we’ve done as a team, trying to figure out when that right time to step away is. I always said I wanted to step away on my own terms if possible, and I want to be competitive out there, and I hoped that I could do that all the way through my final year.

This is the right time. I think it really became clear about halfway through last season that it was definitely going to be. Rick kept talking me into going longer and longer and longer. And I kept saying no, I think this is the year. I think this is the year. Finally about halfway through last year I said, no. This is it, Boss, and we agreed and the timing was good for me, good for Hendrick and other opportunities that are out in front of us.

Looking forward to spending more time with my family, but most of all looking forward to just that next chapter of my life working with Hendrick Motorsports and other partners.

RICK HENDRICK: Well, it’s going to be surely awkward and strange when I walk in the garage area and I don’t

Gordon in his office. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

see Jeff sitting in the 24 car. But at the same time, I’m looking at it like, man, that’s a year away. So I want to go out and win the championship with him this year and have the kind of season we had last year.

I just thank him for all he’s done to help our company and all the records he’s broken. I look forward to him helping the company grow. He’s got so much talent in other areas that being a partner he’s going to be just a tremendous asset outside of the car.

So it’s bittersweet, but I’m just kind of putting off that he’s not going to be in the car because he’s going to be in a car for another year. But I think he said it all. He wanted to do it on his terms. He’s just meant so much to me, the sport, the drivers, young guys owe him so much. He broke a lot of barriers to help people get into the sport, and he’s just been an icon in our sport. So I’m anxious to see the next chapter after we win the championship this year. Put a little pressure on him.

JEFF GORDON: I like it.

Q. Jeff, first of all, congratulations on your career and this year as well. You had said that midway through last year it kind of started in your mind that this may be what you want to do. Was it the back injury? Did your performance down the stretch make you waiver at all in that decision?

JEFF GORDON: No, I honestly thought this was going to happen a couple years ago, and during every off‑season I can think of over the last several years Rick and I have talked about our future together, the future of Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports. And I’m so thankful to Rick to have that kind of relationship where we

Jeff Gordon and his boss/friend Rick Hendrick at the Brickyard. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

can talk honestly about things that are happening in the sport and with sponsors and the team, and me personally and professionally. So I’ve got such a great friend as well as partner here that we just would talk from time to time.

I really was leaning towards this at the beginning of ’14, but it didn’t get serious until midway of ’14. It was a combination of things. It wasn’t just one thing. Yeah, the back thing played a role. I think that really more just confirmed things for me rather than anything else. Even the great stretch and the run that we had and how good we were last year confirmed things even more for me. I was like, you know what? This is all I could ask for is to be at this point in my career, 20‑plus years into my career and be that competitive week‑in and week‑out, I was almost ready to walk away right then. But I wanted to give one more year to my team, to Rick, to the sponsors, to the fans, my family and myself. It just seemed like the timing was right to do those things and start that next chapter.

The next chapter, you can’t really start it until you really finalize that decision, and then all of a sudden start to put the pieces together.

Q. NASCAR without Jeff Gordon just leaves a huge void. How do you look at having achieved that place in sport and your role in the sport as a leader after being that guy?

JEFF GORDON: You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever really looked at myself in that way. I just go out there every week and try to perform at the highest level I can and be the best driver as I can for my team. I’ve never really approached it as I’m a leader in the garage area or for the sport.

I’m very appreciative and thankful of sometimes others looking at it that way or the things that I’ve done that have helped contribute to the sport’s growth. I look forward to the future growth of the sport. I mean, I feel like my experience behind the wheel, my experience of being partners with Rick and learning from him that that’s going to help me continue to add to the sport in any way that I can.

But there are a lot of talented drivers out there that really have the ability to keep the sport growing and transcending. A lot of young drivers out there that are coming up as well that I think are extremely exciting for the fans in the sport.

Q. Rick, obviously there is a lot of speculation about Chase Elliott. Where does he fit into the plans given this announcement?

RICK HENDRICK: Oh, we’re just kind of looking at what’s down the road a little bit later. We’re going to kind of focus on Jeff and what he’s accomplished, and then at a later time we’ll kind of focus on who is going to be in the car.

Q. Jeff, I wanted to ask you, you’ve been around and seen numerous changes in NASCAR during your career

Jeff Gordon will take one last shot at a fifth championship. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

from safety initiatives to the tracks that it’s raced to how the championship is determined. I just wondered, during the course of your career what is the best thing that you’ve seen NASCAR accomplish, and what is one thing, maybe, that you struggled with or didn’t like or have had difficulty adjusting to during your career?

JEFF GORDON: Well, that’s a great question or questions. Yeah, I think that the greatest thing I saw was in those mid to late 90’s, the growth of the sport, and how going to Indianapolis, and going to Texas, and moving all over the country and then packaging the TV broadcasting partners along with that, and during that same time the fans and their avidness for the sport was growing further and further. The core was still the southeast, but you started seeing it be so recognizable beyond that and throughout the U.S.

I know it seemed like just a lot of things were coming together at one time through those mid to late 90’s. So it was fun to be a part of that and an incredible growth. Just going to the racetrack and every weekend the grandstands were filled. They were putting new grandstands in, and they’d fill those. They’d put more grandstands in and they’d fill those. So it was very, very cool.

So, obviously, I think the biggest thing was adjusting to the Chase. I’ll never forget the day Brian France was telling me that’s what they were going to do. We were on the dock in Key West, and I told him that was not a very good idea. But honestly after that and how I’ve experienced it the last couple of years, especially last year, I love it. I think it’s great. It’s great for the fans. It’s great for the sport. It really brings a lot of excitement.

It really bums me out I haven’t won one under this format. We’ve been close, but haven’t won it, and I’m using that as motivation in this final season to run for the championship and to go out there and get it done. I thought we had a chance to do it last year, and, boy, I would have loved to get into that same position that we were in this past year and do that again this year with running for the championship at Homestead.

Q. Obviously, transcendent career. It’s crazy we’re having this conversation.

JEFF GORDON: I know. I agree. Don’t be getting me all emotional now.

Q. I know how hard it is when you’re asked the legacy question. So I don’t know what I’m expecting to get from you here. But I was asked today what is your legacy? And it’s such a multi‑facetted answer and damn hard to answer. How do you want to be remembered? What do you want fans to remember about your career?

JEFF GORDON: I think that maybe we’ve seen a little bit more of it over the last five years. But just how

The chase is coming to an end for one of racing's all-timers. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

passionate I am about what I do and how much it means to me. I probably, a lot of people don’t know the insights. You’ve got to go to the crew chiefs and the teams, maybe somebody like Rick that is there to see what kind of effort gets put into that to win that many races and championships and how you blend yourself in with different personalities and teams.

But I just love driving race cars. Ever since I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to do was be a race car driver. I hoped that it would get to this level, but I didn’t know that was going to happen. I think, if anything, it’s about seeing a kid’s dream come true in real life in front of thousands if not millions of people.

Q. I’m curious. You didn’t use the word retirement in your statement. With the way NASCAR’s rules are as far as ownership and driving, it looks pretty difficult to see you in a car after next year if it’s not ‑‑ unless something were to happen to a Hendrick driver or something like that. Can you just not mentally use that word or do you really think there is a chance you could be in a Cup car at some point after 2015?

JEFF GORDON: Well, the way I see myself in the world is that retirement means you go off to a beach somewhere and sit in a rocking chair on the front porch and drink your coffee and pet your dog. That’s not me. I plan on working. I’m going to be working ‑‑ I’m actually going to have to get a real job now. So when I think of retirement, I just don’t think that that’s what I’m doing.

I want to leave myself open, as well, to be able to get in a car. It doesn’t have to be a Cup car. It could be an [XFINITY] car. It could be a truck. It could be a prototype for Le Mans or the Rolex. It might not be any of those things. Heck, I was just out in the desert driving buggies and I maybe want to do the Baja 1000. I don’t plan on doing any racing, but I know I’m not going to be retiring because I have a lot on my plate already that we have plans for, and we’ll be talking about in the future. And I’m excited about that. I really am.

Q. I know you have a lot of respect for Rick Mears, and this morning I reviewed the notes of a conversation I had with Rick after he retired in December of 1992. What he told me was that when he realized that when he got

Jeff Gordon: "I think the chances are pretty good that Homestead will be the last race that you see me in. But, again, I don't know that for a fact. But I know that I'm not going to come back and do a part‑time schedule." (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

up in the morning and was not looking forward to going to the track or getting in the car, he knew that he had to stop. Does that translate at all to what you’re feeling now? Also, should fans make their decisions on buying tickets to races this year on the basis that it will be the last time they’ll have a chance to see you race?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I mean, I think the chances are pretty good that Homestead will be the last race that you see me in. But, again, I don’t know that for a fact. But I know that I’m not going to come back and do a part‑time schedule.

I love being competitive. I love racing for wins. It’s not the thrill of the speed but just being at the track that I enjoy. Actually a lot of people that are close to me probably think quite the opposite. I take it too serious sometimes. I’m not really there to have fun unless that means you’re getting a trophy at the end of the weekend.

You know, there is no doubt over the last couple years I’ve been faced with those thoughts like Rick Mears was talking about. I had times when I went having fun leaving the racetrack or showing up to the racetrack because things weren’t going well. But last year changed that for me. It did. It built my confidence up. I felt like I was as good as anybody out there or as good as I’ve ever been because I’ve invested in this team, and I feel like we’re going to be able to continue that momentum in 2015. I look forward to that very much.

Nothing made me happier than signing off on this amazing career that I’ve had at Homestead and knowing that I went out ‑‑ of course you want to go out on top, but even so if that’s not possible, I want to go out being competitive and going out there and putting on great racing at the top level all the way to the end. That’s all I ask for. Last year gave me that inspiration that that can happen again this year.

Q. Is today a happy or a sad day for you?

JEFF GORDON: Today is an emotional day (laughing). I had to tell my daughter this this morning when I was explaining to her that I was going to be telling the team and people this and talking about it, and she saw me get very emotional when I was telling her. And I saw a look that I’d never seen in her eye before where she had never seen me like that, and I had to explain to her. Because most kids see when tears are flowing, it’s sadness, and it wasn’t for me. It was pride.

I’m just very proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished and what goals were set early in my career or as a young kid and how I’ve been able to get this far. Yeah, I’m a little sad that there is going to be a day when I step out of the car and it will be the last time. But I knew that that day was going to come at some time, and I think this is the right time. I’m more proud and excited of what I’ve done as well as what the future holds.

Q. Kind of following up on the why and how, it sounds like you’ve always been an image conscious person, and I know you want to leave the fans with the right image after I know you’ve seen some veterans maybe hang around too long. What happens though if 2015 isn’t as good as 2014? Did that play into your decision at all to stay an extra year when it sounded like you were close to hanging it up after ’14?

JEFF GORDON: It was never, never planned to end after ’14. I made the joke about winning the championship and riding off into the sun, but even if we had won the championship, that wouldn’t have happened. Because I’m partners with Rick, I know how the business works, and I knew that as competitive as I was, I wasn’t quite ready, and as well that there were business commitments that I told him I would fulfill and I plan to.

To me, yes, I want to have a great year. Right now I feel good about it because of the way we ran in ’14, but if we don’t, it’s still a heck of a career. I’m going to try to go out and enjoy myself more than I normally do. Normally I just take it so darn seriously that sometimes no matter how we run, good or bad, I don’t always enjoy it to the fullest. I want to enjoy this season to the fullest. I want my family around me, being a part of it, enjoying it. Yeah, I’m looking forward to going to the track and smiling, lots of reminiscing, and enjoying the people and friendships that I’ve made over the years as well as getting the most out of that race car with my team. I hope all of those things can come together.

One of the things that we are planning on doing and one of my big focuses with Alan on this decision was I want my focus to be on driving that race car to the best of my ability, and I don’t think that you can do that and try to have this retirement or sign off type of festivities every weekend.

So my plan is that I’ll be back at the track in 2016 doing all kinds of things with the fans. I’m certainly going to be there at Hendrick Motorsports and the team. I’ll be a major fixture at the track quite a bit in 2016, and I look forward to really getting interaction to those fans that have been so loyal to me over the years. I think they want me to be competitive out there when I’m on the track. That means a lot to me.

I found that out especially, and I want to do that. And the only way I can do that is to really be focused on all the things that it takes with the team, the meetings, and the debriefing, and going over all the data and just really being there. So that’s a decision we made that goes beyond ’15, and it’s part of our plans.

Q. What is one thing in your career you’re most proud of?

JEFF GORDON: Goodness, I’d say a couple of things. I feel like I have always done my best to be humble and appreciative and give my best to the team. The team is not me. It’s a group of people. If I want to be successful, I’ve got to show them that I’m no more important or less important than anybody else on the team.

I’m certainly proud of some of the big, big wins that we’ve accomplished as a team and championships, as well as the work I’ve done with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation. That’s also something that’s going to go on for many years. Something that I haven’t been able to spend as much time with that I really love doing. Spending time with those families and those kids and raising more dollars for a great charity, so I’m very proud of what we’ve done.

But I also, a lot of times I have regrets that I don’t spend more time with it, and I want to spend more time with it, and this hopefully will allow me to do that.

Q. Who did you confide in when you were making this decision in the final days? Who did you tell first besides after your family?

JEFF GORDON: I think most of my conversations were between Rick Hendrick and my stepfather John Bickford. He’s the one that got me into this thing, and who I owe so much to. He’s been there from the beginning and all the way up until now.

Rick Hendrick, I guess we’re going to have our 23rd season together. He’s been far more than just a car owner to me. He’s somebody that I trust, someone that’s been there for me through a lot of things, not just on the racetrack but off, and we’re partners. I’m so thankful for the opportunity he gave me. Not just to drive his car, but we decided to do a long‑term contract, that meant the world to me. He wanted to be part of Hendrick Motorsports in that way just beyond the driver.

So obviously my first conversations were to him. I mean, I threw around the idea with my wife, Ingrid and my stepdad, John Bickford, but most of the conversations when they got really and having to really work out the details of when it could happen and how it could happen was with Rick.

Q. Congratulations, Jeff. This is for both you and Mr. H. Dovetailing off what you were asked about legacy. Not necessarily legacy, but how do you, Jeff, want to be remembered as a driver and competitor? And Mr. H, how do you want fans to remember a guy you’ve got so much belief and trust in and so many miles in with what you guys have gone through in two decades plus?

RICK HENDRICK: Well, I think the fans will remember Jeff as that young guy that came into a sport that changed the sport. I mean, until he showed up and got in a Cup car at a young age, no one had ever done that. Then to go out and win the championship in his third year was amazing. Then to be so competitive and dominate the sport there, and then today and in this past year what he was able to do leading the points and be such a factor in the Chase.

But I think more than that they’re going to remember the way he’s given back. Whether it’s the foundation to kids or Make‑A‑Wish or just the professionalism that he has shown, whether it’s Regis and Kelly or Saturday Night Live or the cover of Fortune, that’s really brought NASCAR to the forefront.

I think all those things are going to be important. Truly one of the greatest drivers that’s ever been in the sport, but a guy that’s done so much to help other people. I mean, how many of the drivers that are here today would never have had the opportunity if Jeff Gordon didn’t blaze a trail at such a young age from a different series?

So you’ve got the wins, the championships, the philanthropy, just role model and spokesman for the sport. I’ve always said he’s got the whole package, and he will leave his mark beyond the driving years too. He’s a special guy, and I think the fans are going to appreciate everything he’s done on and off the track.

JEFF GORDON: I guess from my standpoint, I mean, I definitely am proud of those things that I’ve done on and off the track. But I guess I get a little bit simple when I think of things like this. I think of who my heroes were when I was growing up: A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser, Steve Kinser, Doug Wolfgang, I grew up in an open‑wheel arena where I grew up in California is all about Sprint Car racing and the Indy 500. It wasn’t until much later that I started watching NASCAR.

So what drew me to those legends and those guys and their legacy was how many races they won. I love the fact that those guys won four Indianapolis 500s and championships and that they were great race car drivers. Quite simply, I’ll be happy if people recognize me as a great race car driver because that’s all I ever wanted to be.

Q. You mentioned a moment ago about the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation. Can you talk a little bit more about what your success on the track has enabled you to do off the track with your foundation, with the Clinton Global Initiative, with your work in Africa?

JEFF GORDON: Yeah, it’s been an incredible opportunity. I remember the first time I went to a hospital in Winston‑Salem, a children’s hospital and met a family and a child that was battling cancer the first time. I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know why I was there or how I could help. But when I left there I knew that I wanted to do more and find a way to help in more than just maybe getting an autograph or taking a picture. So it was not long after that Ray Evernham’s son was diagnosed with leukemia. We started a program together called Racing For a Reason. Shortly after that Mr. Hendrick was also diagnosed with leukemia, so in 1999 I formed the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, and we started primarily doing work with Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, pediatric cancer, and that grew into doing research with some of the top hospitals in the country, like Riley Hospital For Children, Levine here in Charlotte, and Children’s National in D.C., and working with the Children’s Oncology Group. That led to other opportunities like working with the Clinton Global Initiative and taking things abroad to other countries.

So it’s been amazing. It’s given me something also to be very proud of beyond just driving a race car, but also I know there is so much more that needs to be done for pediatric cancer that I want to be a part of in the future.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 22 2015
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