Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and three other drivers sit down with Athlon Sports and share what's on their minds
In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.
The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
We’ve discovered that drivers are as bold and determined in sharing their opinions as they are when they’re dashing for the checkers. Once again, we’ve convened some of the sport’s top guns for some candid questions and even more candid replies. Some questions brought quick, definitive answers, while others drew a diverse range of opinions. Enjoy.
Are off-track incidents that draw penalties that deduct points fair (i.e., the cursing penalty or physical confrontations)?
Jeff Gordon: It depends on the circumstances. Obviously, the one with Junior was a total overreaction, but so were the other similar situations earlier in the year that involved the other drivers who were punished the same way as Junior for the same reason. If you are out there wrecking owners’ cars or embarrassing the sport, the penalties are fair and justified. You have to evaluate each one a little differently because each case is a little different. It’s a job I’m glad I don’t have to do or make the calls on that one.
Ricky Rudd: My personal opinion is that I can’t group all off-track incidents into that category, but maybe a cuss word that slips out, if you are referring to the Earnhardt incident, my feeling is that points should not have been taken away.
Elliott Sadler: NASCAR does a great job of keeping everyone on a level playing field, and they were more consistent in 2004. I think they are making progress as a sanctioning body as it relates to penalties. Some of them are more harsh than I may agree with and some of them are more mild than I agree with.
Brian Vickers: It really depends on the situation. When it comes to the penalties, if it’s a severe enough infraction, points need to be deducted. A fine is not much of a deterrent, but taking away points gets everyone’s attention.
Jimmie Johnson: I feel for NASCAR and for Junior on that deal. I mean, everybody wants a colorful driver to speak what’s on your mind. But there’s obviously laws and rules in place that we all have to abide by.
I know that all sporting events, everything from baseball, basketball, everything, including the racing, we’ve been under a lot of pressure from I guess — what is it called? The FCC. You know, there’s been things brought up in the drivers meeting about watching how we even use language on the radio across the board.
With the precedent (NASCAR) set earlier in the year, they weren’t left an option in my opinion. I feel that they didn’t want to affect the Championship based on this. I wouldn’t want to see the Championship affected by something somebody said outside of the race car. This deal needs to be settled on the racetrack. But, again, we have rulings and regulations that we have to abide by and a precedent that has been set that they didn’t have a choice but to fall in line with what they did earlier in the year.
Does the Nextel Cup Series need a separate point system for Chase participants (i.e., should the team that wins the most races be crowned champion, should anyone with at least one win be included, more points awarded for wins, etc.)?
Ryan Newman: I’ve made my opinion on the entire Chase system very clear. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the original point system. No matter how they decide to build the Chase format, I don’t think it’s fair to take points away from anyone. I don’t see how they can justify that.
Johnson: I’ve been a fan of raising the difference in the points (first versus second place) all along. I think that would be a good change regardless of the way the Championship is decided anyway.
Gordon: I like and don’t like the new points system. It was fun and exciting toward the end of this season. No one knew who was going to win it all until the last half of the final race of the season. It was great. I do have concerns for the sponsors that don’t make The Chase and what should be done, I am not sure. I agree and don’t agree with it, but it did make for quite a ride there in the end.
Vickers: The Chase itself is great and I believe it accomplished the objectives NASCAR hoped it would in terms of drawing attention to the sport. The point system needs to reward wins and consistency. Maybe more points for wins and bonuses for top 5 finishes.
Sadler: I like the format the way it is. It’s a little bit of the new and a little bit of the old. I’m sure NASCAR will refine this system as we move forward, but for now I think it works just fine. We went into the final race with five drivers mathematically eligible. That’s exciting and our ratings were up as a result of it. I think the new format is great!
Are you concerned with sponsorship issues for teams who do not make The Chase?
Rudd: I believe it is a concern because of lot of these agreements that are in place today with the new point system were signed one or two years ago before the new system was announced. And now you’ve got sponsors that are not getting the exposure that they thought maybe they should be getting. Maybe they’ve had some good races and they have not gotten the exposure on the television because television is busy covering the top 10 in points. So I think there are some wrinkles that have to be worked out. It could affect the future contract negotiations that sponsors and teams enter into for sponsorships. I’m afraid that could be a big sticking point.
Sadler: No. I think the increased ratings because of the Chase is a home run for all of the sponsors involved in this great sport. If you’re in the top 10 it is a bonus but if you aren’t you can still go out and win races. If you do that your sponsor will get the attention and exposure they deserve. I’m a big supporter of the new format and believe all sponsors should be too.
Johnson: I guess it depends on your perspective and the point of view you want to take. When I talk to NASCAR and understand their point of view and why they wanted to bring this system into place — look at the numbers at the end of the season on the Joyce Julius reports, you’ve got more teams getting more exposure because of the first 26 races. It’s not just focused on the people competing for the Championship. There is a cutoff point and there are more teams farther back that are getting more exposure. So, I think you can work up an argument from either side. What’s the right answer? I think everybody knows that I’ve been the slowest to form and agree with the points system. But I do feel it’s going to be here to stay. There may be some tweaking that takes place. But I think this is going to hit what they wanted to hit and that it will bring some more attention to our sport.
Newman: I think sponsorship issues are always a concern for everyone involved in NASCAR. Each driver knows that they wouldn’t be where they are without his or her sponsor so they want that sponsor to get as much play and publicity as possible.
Whether or not you are in the Chase, performance should be every team’s main goal. If you perform well, and possibly win some races, your sponsor will get just as much attention as those who are gunning for the Championship.
Do you believe drivers in The Chase get raced against differently? How so?
Johnson: In the beginning, we saw some things take place that I hope kind of sent a message to the guys that aren’t in the Chase that want to be in the Chase in the future and want that respect paid back to them. We had a couple of problems. I had one at Richmond before we went into the final 10. When you’re caught up in it, you’re overly frustrated. When it doesn’t happen to you, you think, ‘There’s my chance to separate myself from a couple of cars.’ It’s just like any other time, I think. When it happens to you, you’re upset. If it doesn’t happen to you, you really don’t have an opinion. You just kind of let it roll by. But I think everybody raced pretty smart and clean.
Vickers: They may catch a break from a driver from time to time, but in most cases I would say every driver races one another the same whether it’s the second race of the season or the last. Everyone is there to win — each week.
Sadler: I think we all raced against each other the same way we had all year. I was involved in several incidents during the Chase, but none of them were with Chase contenders. We race against each other every week and most of us understand it takes a lot of give and take to make that work successfully.
Newman: No, not really. If they are in there (the Chase) I don’t think they expect any special treatment. But by the same token they ought to be treated fairly. To me the point system should be operated blindly out of sight of the competitors.
Who besides yourself and your teammate do you consider the front-runner for the 2005 Nextel Cup?
Johnson: You know, I would look to say for my own selfish reasons within my team, for Hendrick Motorsports, all the people working so hard to build great race cars for us. But there definitely is something out there that you’d love to see Mark (Martin) win one. The man has tried so hard for so many years and has been so close that it wouldn’t hurt my feelings, I should say, if he was the champion.
Sadler: I think Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will be strong, but I also think Mark Martin is going to be a huge threat. This is a tough sport and we are undergoing more rule changes so that will change the competition some.
Vickers: I have great teammates at Hendrick Motorsports who’ll be in contention for the Championship next year. I don’t know that I can consider anyone else.
Newman: The returning champion, Kurt Busch, is always going to be tough. You really can’t count out any of the Roush cars. Matt Kenseth is tough, and Mark Martin really turned it on this year. The Hendrick teams really have it together right now too. They proved this year that they are capable of winning any race at any track.
Would you be in favor of a two-day weekend as opposed to the current three-day show in the Cup Series?
Gordon: I am in favor of more two-day weekends, because it will save money and time for everyone who works in this sport and is on the road almost every weekend. It will save money on tires and it will give those who travel the majority of the year more time at home and that is something you can’t put a price tag on.
Sadler: I’m a big supporter of it. I have a motorcoach I take to the track every week, but my crew guys don’t have that same luxury. If they can give those guys an extra day at home with their families then I absolutely support it 100 percent.
Newman: Definitely. If there is a way that NASCAR could work this out, I think every team would be in favor of it. It would cut back the cost of racing to a certain degree. Plus, every crew member would get an extra day at home with his or her family. As much as they’re gone with the current schedule, I can’t think of any of them who wouldn’t want an extra day at home, including myself.
Vickers: I’m kind of indifferent. There are some events better suited for two-day shows — that’s a fact. The real beneficiaries of two-day events are, and should be, the crew guys. Allowing them to be at home an extra day with their families would go a along way. They work so hard, travel so much that getting them an extra day would be my biggest concern for switching to two-day shows.
Is there someone outside your team who has influenced your career and you consider a mentor?
Sadler: Yes, my Uncle Bud has always been my hero and a huge inspiration in my life. Uncle Bud passed away last year after a long bout with cancer. I have a lot of cousins that still race and so does my brother and our family tradition started with our Uncle Bud.
Gordon: I have been fortunate enough to drive for some of the best owners and with some of the greatest drivers in the sport. I’ve had a ton of mentors. It’s hard to nail down just one. I mean, I drove for Richard Childress for the last three years. I’ve driven for Roger Mears, Rick Mears and Derrick Walker. The list can go on and on, so I have been blessed to be mentored by all of them.
Newman: My father, first and foremost. He’s the one who first introduced me to racing. He went on to sacrifice much of his time for me to pursue this career. He’s always been very supportive of my racing career.
Buddy Baker has pretty much been my mentor since I joined NASCAR. Buddy took me to my first test session and helped coach me through my first year with Penske. I still go to him with my questions, and I know I can always trust his answers. He’s a great friend.
Vickers: There’s been so many people along the way that have helped me throughout my career. From family, to friends to other drivers. If I had to pick one person, it would be my dad.
Rudd: Right off the top of my head I can’t think of anybody. But right at the beginning when I was coming in when I was 18 years old, I guess he was probably my age now at that time — James Hylton was very helpful when I was coming into the sport if for no other reason than he just took an interest in trying to give me some pointers. The other fella I would have to say was Junie Dunlavey, the car owner I drove for in 1979. Junie was a car owner, but he was also a very good coach. He worked with a lot of drivers who went on to be really great drivers. A lot of people didn’t realize that Junie at that time was more than just an owner. He was a very good driver coach. They didn’t really exist in the sport at that time. When I ran for Junie I had just run a handful of car races so he had his work cut out for him that year.
What would you do to make restrictor plate racing safer?
Gordon: There is really nothing else you can do other than what has already been done.
Rudd: Take off the restrictor plates.
Vickers: I’m comfortable right now the way plate racing is.
If the wives or girlfriends of the Nextel Cup drivers were to race against one another, who would you bet on? If the crew chiefs were to do the same who would you bet on?
Rudd: She’s not on the track any more, but it would have to be Robin Dallenbach. A lot of people don’t realize that she actually drove Cup cars for a while.
Sadler: I’d bet on Delana Harvick and Tommy Baldwin.
If you were given an opportunity with a top-notch team to run the Indianapolis 500, would you?
Johnson: I thought I was going to end up racing Indy cars. That was my dream when I was younger until I got into my teens, really. I watched Rick Mears and Robby Gordon. Robby came from the off-road ranks and was going into Indy cars and it seemed like that was the natural step for an off-road racer — actually the only step for an off-road racer at the time. Until Chevrolet took me under its wing and guided my career, I thought as a kid that Indy cars would be what I would race. There were races close to my house and I could catch them on television — especially the Indy 500. It was the biggest race we’d watch all year long. I always wanted to go to the Brickyard and to be there in a stock car in the best form of racing has a lot of cool things that come along with that. That was one of the few races I could sit and watch the whole race with my dad on television. I remember the fiery crashes with some of the starts in the ‘70s and ‘80s and I’ve just always had a big draw to the race track just like everybody does.
Sadler: No. I would like to run a World of Outlaws car, but I just don’t have any interest in running in many open wheel series.
Newman: Not at this time. I won’t say that I’ll never consider it, but not right now. The ALLTEL team and I are 100 percent focused on winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup Championship. We are completely consumed by that. I wouldn’t want to turn my focus to anything else until we accomplish that goal.
Rudd: That was a big decision we went through in 1998. We won the Brickyard 400 in 1997. I was invited to drive for one of the top Indy car teams to be a partner with Scott Goodyear. And I had to weigh that out really heavily. Even though we won in ‘97, our Cup team was struggling very hard to make that work, and I was a very active owner. If I had taken time away during the month of May with back and forth trips to Carolina between Cup races it would have been a major distraction. I was very excited about the opportunity offered by the car owner John Barns. Again, it was a tough decision and I finally made the decision that with the ownership role in Cup garage and trying to do both, both would have suffered.
Vickers: Without a doubt!
Gordon: I already have run with a top-notch team and always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t with a top-notch team.
It’s said that the difference between a man and a boy is the size of his toys. What are some of your favorite toys?
Gordon: I love toys. I think I have the ultimate toy. It is my Trophy truck. It is the ultimate motorcycle along with the ultimate monster truck all mixed in one. It weighs 4,500 pounds and makes 900 horsepower. It can get up to 35 feet in the air. That’s major air…for a truck.
Vickers: I’m still a kid. I enjoy keeping up with technology and all of the gadgets which come as a result of it. I mess around on my computer a lot, play video games —the kind of things the average 21-year-old likes. Nothing out of control.
Rudd: I fool with some four-wheelers a little bit and I play with go-karts a little bit and occasionally dirt bikes.
What other drivers or crew chiefs would you want to play poker against? Which would you not?
Vickers: I play poker with Jeff (Gordon), Jimmie (Johnson) and Casey Mears on somewhat of a regular basis. Jeff is a good poker player and probably the one I would most likely not wish to play against in a tournament.
Sadler: We play Texas Hold’em some at the track for fun. I enjoy playing with Greg Biffle and the other participants are usually bus drivers. Those guys are card sharks, especially Digger — Dale Jarrett’s bus driver. I enjoy playing cards so there’s not anyone I’d turn down in a friendly card game.
Gordon: Any of them. I’m pretty good.
How does a girl go about meeting a race car driver?
Johnson: I see a lot of attempts made to all kinds of drivers. I don’t know if I necessarily agree or if it’s the right way (laughs). At the track, it’s tough because the guys are there doing their jobs. Rarely do you catch one out on a night where their minds are not on racing. We’re all normal people. If you look at any sports figure and you get them away from their environment, they just really like to relax and do what the rest of the world does. So if you can catch somebody during the week at dinner or somewhere else, that would be your best bet.
At what age do you plan to retire? What do you plan to do after your driving career? Will you remain in racing in some capacity?
Sadler: That’s a good question. We’ve seen a new trend recently with young guys coming in and some of the elder drivers are in the process of retiring or at least cutting back to a partial schedule. I think you’ll see most of the guys in my generation racing til 40 or 45. After I retire I have no clue what I’ll be doing. I would love to partner with a sponsor and build a Busch or Cup team. That’s a long ways away for me.
Gordon: I will probably try to go until I am 40ish. I am sure I will do something involved in racing one way or another, even after I retire. I am already venturing into ownership and that will be something I plan to pursue for quite a long time.
Vickers: Retirement is not on my mind yet. I don’t think you’ll see drivers compete for as many years as they have in the past because the schedule and demands are just so great now. When I do step away from driving full-time I’d like to remain involved in the sport somehow or in another business field.
The following questions were asked under the assurance that answers would be printed anonymously:
Do you believe there are teams using traction control?
- “I don’t know.”
What are the drawbacks of being at the pinnacle of your sport? To put it another way, what sucks about your job?
- “I don’t like flying. So that’s easy to answer.”
- “Travel. Time away from home.”
- “Nothing really sucks about it. You just don’t have a life outside of it. It consumes your life. It’s not a job. It’s a way of life.”
- “The drawbacks are far less than the benefits. Time and privacy are probably the two biggest drawbacks.”
Who is the most underrated driver and crew chief (not necessarily on the same team) on the circuit?
- “Greg Biffle is the most underrated.”
- “Chris Andrews is a very underrated crew chief. I think you will be hearing more about him in years to come.”
Where is your favorite vacation spot?
- “My wife and I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for our honeymoon. It was absolutely beautiful and very relaxing. So it’s right up there. I’m taking the team to Utah for vacation in December, so we’ll see how that goes. I’m sure we’ll have a great time skiing and snowmobiling.”
- “Nags Head, North Carolina.”
- “Anywhere that has a beach.”
- “Don’t have one.”
- “Mexico, because what happens in Mexico stays in Mexico, I always say.”