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Jeff Gordon: A Conversation with NASCAR's Real-Life Superhero

Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports

From 4-time Cup champion to Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman, Gordon remains at the front of the pack

First things first. Let's ask and answer everybody's primary question about Jeff Gordon being named vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports: Is Gordon replacing Rick Hendrick? The answer is an emphatic no.

Hendrick, the founder of the most successful team in NASCAR history, isn't going anywhere. "He's not backing down," Gordon told Athlon Sports' Matt Crossman in a wide-ranging interview a few days after Kyle Larson won Hendrick's 14th Cup championship and 280th overall race, both the most ever in NASCAR. "He's very involved, very engaged."

Gordon, who won 93 of those races along with four championships as a driver and seven as co-owner of Jimmie Johnson's car, did not officially start as vice chairman until January 1, but he was working behind the scenes at Hendrick long before that, showing up at the office regularly for meetings and being involved in key decisions, such as the hiring of Johnson and Larson. He has been an equity owner in the company for more than 20 years.

In his new full-time role, he will focus on the team's competition and marketing efforts and will serve as Hendrick's representative on NASCAR's diversity, equity and inclusion committee.

Gordon gave this interview via Zoom from his office on Hendrick's suburban Charlotte campus, which he was decorating with dozens of pictures tracing the team's history — from the first win (1984, Martinsville) to the most recent (Larson at the 2021 season-ending race at Phoenix).

Gordon's goal will be to ensure that his office never runs out of artwork. (Interview has been edited for space.)

Crossman: What is your job going to be?

Gordon: First and foremost, you look at my history here, how long I've been a part of this and how much passion I have for the people here. That's what Rick's taught me more than anything, how important bringing people together is and creating an environment that is a great place to work — a place to showcase your talents, and a place to be a part of a competitive sport like NASCAR. All I want to do is continue to complement what Rick has built here and what I've been a part of for all these years.

What I'm loving right now is, as a driver, I had my group of guys and, from time to time, I'd interact with others, but now I'm getting to go to all these different sections of the campus and spend more time with all these people I've known for years but haven't really known on this level.

With that said, the job is, how do I just help keep that vision going that he set forth?

Crossman: You guys are coming off one of the best seasons in history. You're already at the top. The cynic in me says there's nowhere to go but down. How do you stay on top?

Gordon: I've been a part of not just this organization but a part of motorsports long enough to know that you can't stay on top forever. You have to ride the wave when you've got the momentum behind you. That's what we have right now, coming off of back-to-back championships. This one was a dominant season.

Now we've got to transition over to a completely new car. Even prior to Phoenix, the buzz around the shop was taking joy in Gen 6 and the number of chassis that were built here by us. It was 1,278 or something like that. So we have chassis No. 1 and chassis No. 1,278. There's a lot of pride around here of what we accomplished with that car. So we want to celebrate that. But we also recognize that we're embarking on a whole new challenge, and we pride ourselves on taking on those challenges. And we want to be the best no matter what the car is, who's developed and designed it.

I just got off the phone with Cliff Daniels (Larson's crew chief). They want to celebrate what they just accomplished, but he's motivated and driven, too. I want to go do it again. Now I know what it feels like to win the championship. As excited and as happy as he has been to celebrate that championship, he's already thinking, how do we get this Next Gen car, not just on the track, but at the level that we're used to? That's the mindset of the people we have.

So here's the way I look at it: I just want to do everything I can, just like Rick always has done, to make sure all the resources are there, the right people are connected, whatever tools we need, we get them in the right hands and let them go do what they do best.

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Crossman: I don't know if you know this, but you turned 50 this year.

Gordon: Unfortunately I do (laughs).

Crossman: In reviewing your career, I think is the first time you've had a quote-unquote real job …

Gordon: No doubt about it.

Crossman: So why are you doing this? You could retire to some island somewhere.

Gordon: It goes back to 2000. That's when Rick and I agreed on a lifetime contract. Conversations were happening of, what is the future for the 24 car and Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick and the organization?

I doubled down. I went to Rick and I said, you've given me the most amazing opportunity. I don't want to go anywhere.

I wanted to do everything I could to — I don't want to say lead the team because I felt like the crew chief and the car owner really lead the team — but as a driver after winning a few championships, I did consider myself as a very significant part of the team. And luckily, so did Rick, and he said, Listen, what can we do? I want you. I don't want you to go anywhere. You don't want to go anywhere. Let's talk about it. And we talked about some equity in the race team, and he said, Hey, if you want that, I'd like to see you be a lifetime driver.

And I'm like, Done.

Honestly, you think of something like that as a very complicated, very difficult thing to pull off. And it had its challenges, but it was one of the easiest things ever because we both wanted it.

So this started back then. Every year I wanted to know a little bit more about the business and understand how sponsors work. What can I do to try to give them back value? What does the team have to do? What's that responsibility?

Then Jimmie Johnson comes along and we even strengthen our partnership more through that. That was a success. I always knew that one day I wanted to be able to be a larger part of those decisions in the business side.

I'm getting to your real question. When I retired in '15, and I went to do TV, Rick and I had conversations leading into the retirement. And I told him that I was interested in doing TV. He said, I want you over here. I said, are you really ready for that?

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We said, let's see how that goes, then we'll revisit.

When I went into the TV booth, I realized not just how much I like the business side and the competition side of motorsports, but just how passionate I am for this sport. I love it. I don't have to be driving to get the chills up my back, to find all the joys that come along with being a part of a winning organization or the challenges to get back to the top if you get knocked down.

That's why you saw me jumping up and down going crazy (after Larson's championship). For the first time, I really felt a part of that side of the business. Before it was me just kind of sprinkling, coming in here and there, but really focusing on TV or really focused on driving. That has me incredibly excited for next year. Challenges or winning or losing or whatever we go through — that's what I'm excited about.

Crossman: Larson has been called the next Jeff Gordon for years. This year he lived up to that. Why? What did he do different this year to dominate that he hadn't been doing in previous years?

Gordon: I drove sprint cars. I drove midgets. So when I see what he does there, my mind is blown. Because those are things that I wish I could have accomplished when I was doing that. And I never did — whether I just didn't spend enough time there or didn't have the abilities that he has. But one thing I never had was his ability to jump in all these different cars and series and win in every one of them at the top level in the biggest races.

So I'm honored if you put me in that category with him, because I think he's just extraordinary. I had a very good friend of mine the other day, who I grew up racing sprint cars with. His son's racing sprint cars. He sent me a note. Congrats on the championship. There was one guy I always thought was the most talented guy that I'd ever raced against and ever seen. And that guy was you. I'm sad to say, but you've moved to second.

And I told him the same thing I told you: I'm honored to be second. I really believe (Larson) is one of those talents that just comes along once in a lifetime.

I knew Kyle from the time I sat down with him when he was coming into NASCAR. I always knew the talent was there. It just seemed like to me, a lot of times he was overdriving the car early on his career and making some mistakes.

When he came over here, I was anxious to see, what's his work ethic? I did this myself: You feel like, I got this. You have so much confidence, you feel like, I don't have to study film and data, and I don't need to be in every meeting, and I don't need to go out in a test and push it 100 percent every single lap.

But I was happily surprised in the effort that Kyle put into coming here, with getting to know all the people, with being in every meeting, taking all the information that his engineers and Cliff Daniels were feeding to him and being able to absorb that and then taking the reins.

I've always been impressed with him but probably even more so now because the way I saw him come in to Hendrick and also stay humble. I don't know how you win that much (and stay humble).

I was not always as humble as he is. But that means a lot to Rick. Rick is a very successful businessman. And one of the things I've admired about him is that he's very down to earth and very humble, and that's also what Kyle Larson is.

Crossman: You had a stretch of dominance. You were an eyewitness, and even a participant as co-owner, in Jimmie Johnson's stretch of dominance. What did you learn that you can whisper into Kyle's ear to help him build on what he accomplished this year?

Gordon: Jimmie was incredibly talented when he came to us. But he didn't know it. He was so humble on the other side of it.

What Jimmie did that made me step up my game — and really everybody in the sport — was he worked so hard. He thought, Man, I don't know if I've got all of the ingredients yet. So I'm going to work way harder than anybody else. I'm going to physically get myself in the best shape, mentally get myself in the best shape, and whatever Chad Knaus tells me I need to do, I'm going to do it. He was just all in.

So I tell everybody, if you want to be the best, you've got to be willing to go all in and do whatever it takes and do that consistently.

Crossman: You've got four drivers at Hendrick. They only give out one trophy a week. How do you keep those egos in check?

Gordon: Rick told me a long time ago, when you've got multiple teams, you're going to have somebody sitting in Victory Lane and somebody who's had a bad day or sulking because they didn't get the win. He always goes to those guys that didn't win first.

So (at Phoenix), I celebrated with Rick right away. Then I went on the search for Chase Elliott and the 9 team, and honestly I had to run after (crew chief) Alan Gustafson. When I got to Alan, I said, man, I'm way too out of shape after running you down like that.

I just put my arm around Alan. He was crushed. It was a tough season on them. They came off of a championship. They got two wins on road courses, but then they see the 5 team dominate and win on so many different types of tracks. Everybody wants to hoist the trophy, but they also want to contribute to Hendrick Motorsports and give back to Rick because he does so much for all of us.

To not be able to do that was tough on them. So I went over there. And honestly something like that happens every weekend, other than Dover, when they were 1, 2, 3, 4. And even then, somebody finished fourth and wishes they had won.

Crossman: I want to ask about an anecdote I heard from Martinsville years ago. You were chasing Jimmie, and he said you were hitting him from behind so hard that if he was in a passenger car, his airbag would have been deployed.

Gordon: That's true.

Crossman: So if next year Chase is chasing Kyle, and he hits Kyle that hard, are you OK with that? Or do you go to Chase and say what the hell are you doing?

Gordon: I didn't wreck Jimmie Johnson. He still won the race. I actually wish I had hit him harder.

Rick (says) all the time: I'll accept all kinds of things. Race as hard as you want. You don't have to like one another all the time. But you're going to respect one another, and you cannot wreck one another.

You can bump, you can bang, you can do all kinds of things. But you can't take one another out.

And that's where the limits are of how Rick looks at it, how I look at it, and how we look at it as an organization. We've had to have some tough conversations this year about pit strategies and racing one another. It's just reminding everybody where's the line in the sand about how you race teammates.

Crossman: The last time I interviewed you, we watched your guest-host appearance on "Saturday Night Live" together in your basement. The thing that struck me was you half-regretted that you didn't allow yourself to crack up in a skit. You were so intent on doing it well that you forgot oh, wait a minute. It's "Saturday Night Live." I always thought that's instructive of your personality.

Gordon: Yeah, it is. It's just who I am. I get it from my mom. It's what makes me, me. It made me good as a racecar driver, and it's what allows me to be on this side of the fence doing what I'm going to be doing next year. It helps me because I can really narrowly focus in if I want to. I want to be great and I want to add as much as I possibly can to whatever environment I'm in. But at the same time, I have to remind myself, have some fun, laugh a little bit more. Don't be so serious.

— Interview by Matt Crossman for Athlon Sports' 2022 Racing magazine. With 144 pages of racing content, it's the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.