Any sport is ultimately all about the numbers, right? Here's Jeff Gordon -- four-time winner of what's now called the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, three-time Daytona 500 winner, first driver to reach $100 million in series winnings -- and all I really want to say to him is, ''Wow! 190 miles an hour! Wow!''
The California-born Gordon is one of the second-generation stars of NASCAR, and on Sunday, he brings his No. 24 car to Fontana's Auto Club Speedway, where he's won before, to try to shake out a little more gold from the Golden State. He's fresh off a big win in Phoenix and a little chat with Jay Leno, and he doesn't just spin his wheels when it comes to contemplating his sport and his place in it.
It doesn't get much better than that. It was like one of those fairytale 24 hours. The way our day went at the racetrack, celebrating a victory that's been a while, and then a good friend of mine, John Lasseter at Pixar [Oscar winner for "Toy Story 3"], [invited] us to a couple of parties. We were on the red carpet and people were asking about "Toy Story," and he said, "No, wait a minute -- Jeff won the race!"
I've seen that Phoenix trophy; no way could you take it to the party.
That's what I was bummed about. I've seen people carrying the Oscars around, and I wanted to carry my trophy and I thought, "OK, that's not gonna pass -- a big cactus."
You'll be doing a role in "Cars 2"?
It's a small role, but I'm really excited about it. John is a big NASCAR fan, and I didn't get an opportunity to be in the first "Cars" movie.
I think of NASCAR and your own story, a young guy out of Vallejo and then Indiana, a racing star, then a slump, then back to victory lane. The story is what people like as much as the sport, isn't it?
Absolutely. When I came in and started doing well, I had a rivalry with Dale Earnhardt Sr. It was my fans against his fans. It created a lot of buzz and the sport was growing and we were racing in new locations; the sport was at such a cool place. Now I've gone through some downs; I think people have maybe seen the real person. You go through a divorce and not win as much -- that's what made [the Phoenix win] so huge.
That's what I tell [teammate and five-time champion] Jimmie [Johnson] all the time: People are going to need to see you struggle a little bit, and I know you don't want to do that, but that's what resonates with the fans.
I read that at a banquet in New York, Earnhardt sent you a Champagne glass full of milk and called you wonder boy. Was that personal, or part of the game?
He liked to poke fun at me. I was the kid and he was the older guy who had all the fans, and that really did resonate with the hardcore NASCAR fans. He could make fun of me and get away with it. He made a joke, "I don't know what they're going to do if Jeff Gordon wins the championship -- I don't even think he's old enough to drink, they'll have to serve him milk." So the milk thing was my idea, and I had them bring the milk to me so I could toast him and have some fun with him.
More safety measures were put in place after Earnhardt crashed and died in 2001. What balance between risk and safety works for the sport?
We've taken huge steps since Dale's death, from [head and neck support] devices to safer barriers. I look back at some crashes I had 10, 15 years ago and I feel kind of lucky to have survived some of them. What we do out there, it's dangerous, but focusing on safety -- it's just the smart way of going about it. When you put yourself at risk every single weekend, accidents are going to happen, and I want to know I'm protected.
You're originally from Vallejo. Does California have any hold on you?
Yeah, you don't ever forget where you came from. My career in racing started at a very young age in California. And now I have my own wine produced in Napa Valley. We have a Cabernet, a Pinot, a Chardonnay, and we also do a blend. We've won a bunch of awards this year. I'm very proud of it. As I get older, my appreciation for wine has just increased. I fell in love with wine through my travels, but knowing what the wine country is all about definitely makes it my own.
You have a place in New York City. When people in New York say they can drive, I think it means they can turn right at 5 mph looking for a parking spot.
I disagree! I think driving in New York is a great experience. A lot more racing techniques go into it than anyplace else I've ever driven. There basically are no lanes. You have to be very offensive, meaning that you do your own thing and make your lane changes and turns, and as long as the other people are doing the same thing, there's not a lot of accidents for the close quarters you're in. I love the challenge of getting to that next light. It's sort of like every block is a race. I don't like to get beat in anything!
Patt Morrison Asks