Jeff Gordon is one of the shining stars of NASCAR who has been able to break through and become a household name, not just with NASCAR fans but with the general public. His success in the sport along with his rivalry with Dale Earnhardt Sr.—another one of those cross-cultural icons—fueled the sport's mainstream surge in the 1990s. Ahead of tomorrow's Daytona 500, he's now trying to do the same from the announcer's booth.
Though he joined the Fox Sports booth to start announcing races alongside Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip back in 2016, Waltrip's retirement in 2019 has moved Gordon up to the lead analyst role as Fox kicks off its 20th year of race coverage in 2020. Gordon stepped back from racing in 2015 after racking up up four NASCAR Cup championships and 93 racing victories. He is also a three-time winner of the Daytona 500, so it seemed appropriate to talk with him on the eve of the 2020 race—one that holds special significance ahead of the many changes due in NASCAR next year in its first all-new model since 2013.
Outside of his television work, Gordon is an equity owner in Hendrick Motorsports after driving for the team for 23 seasons and remains very involved. Another popular driver with that team, Jimmie Johnson, is also retiring this year.
We spoke about their prospects for the year as well as what Gordon expects for the sport as it moves to a new generation of car. Hendrick is also working on a track day car that anyone can buy called the Track Attack, and Gordon is enthusiastic about what that means for sharing the NASCAR experience with a fresh audience.
The Daytona 500 starts on Sunday, Feb. 16 at 1:00pm ET on Fox to kick off the 2020 NASCAR season.
The Drive: As far as your predictions for this season, as far as what drivers are going to do, what's it been like to see Jimmie Johnson in his retirement season? What's the preparation been like? Is it different from last year?
Jeff Gordon: Yeah. First of all, Toyota, they've set a high mark in recent years, and their dominance and the championships have proven that. I still think they're the team to beat at this stage, looking at the season. If you look at what's going to be new and different in 2020, there's a new Chevy Camaro, and are Hendrick and Ganassi and Childress and these other Chevy teams going to be able to capitalize on that? How is that car going to improve their performance? So there's some unknowns there, but I think Penske is going to be strong again, SHR is going to be strong again.
As far as Jimmie Johnson and that effort, I've been able to be closer to that effort than any other team because I have access to it, and I'm really excited. I think he's going to win races. I think he's going to have a great year and do what Jimmie does, which is step up at crucial moments in his career and go out on top. Now the championship, I'm not sure. But I think they're going to have a winning season and I think they'll go deep into the playoffs, if not to the final four. Cliff Daniels and Jimmie have been clicking really well, and they've been working really hard—and [Cliff] basically trained underneath [Johnson's longtime crew chief] Chad Knaus. So, I have every reason to believe that those guys are going to gel well, and really have a great year.
TD: With NASCAR going, of course, to the Next Gen car, this Daytona 500 that's coming up will be the last race with the traditional stock car formula as the new cars have the sequential box, the independent rear, and so on. Are you guys planning anything special for this race or this season as these changes are happening, and how are you planning to explain to fans what's leaving, why it's special, and then what's coming in?
JG: I think right now, our approach is that we want to focus on 2020. We want to focus on the great race that we think we're going to have this year. I think at the appropriate time will be a great time to talk about what's new for 2021, whether it be the schedule, whether it be the car and the differences. But I think for right now, it's really more focused and comparing what we had in '19 to '20, and even more so of just the exciting things I think are happening in 2020.
TD: I'll switch to another lane. Since you're involved with Hendrick, I saw recently that there is a new Hendrick Track Attack track day car. Did you have any involvement in that car, or are you familiar with it? Have you gotten to drive it or check it out?
JG: I'm somewhat involved with it. Obviously, they're our race cars. So in that sense, I think it's a very unique opportunity for somebody that's going to get to drive and feel what a true Cup car is like. Tremendous amount of power—you can do some upgrades that I think are really cool from a gearbox standpoint. If you don't want it to have the very true experience of knowing how difficult it is to rev match an H-pattern four speed transmission on a road course and wheel hop and all those things, that's nice to have [a sequential] option there. But the cars are just absolute beasts, and I mean it.
When you have this type of a car that is offered up to the general public, they better hold on tight, they better be ready for what they're going to be managing. But I think it's also one of the funnest cars that there is, to slide and throw around the racetrack.
TD: Your rivalry with Dale Earnhardt Sr. is iconic at this point. Do you see anybody developing in today's environment, any two drivers or teams or anything like that that might develop into something like that. You know, where it could hype people up—not a conflict, so to say—but something to get the fans riled up?
JG: Well, if I'm the drivers out there right now, Kyle Busch would be my rival every weekend. You know what I mean? The guy's been dominant. He can be brash at times and opinionated and outspoken. And so, he has a little fan base, but he also has some haters out there. And so, I think that you could take advantage of that. If you can go compete with him on the track and push your choke back and outrun him, I think it opens you up to have some opportunities to really grow your brand within the sport.
We've seen a little bit of rivalry between him and Joey Logano, but you need a guy like Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson, or... I'm trying to think of somebody. Maybe Kevin Harvick. Somebody that can go and compete with him. Ryan Blaney. They can go compete with a guy like Kyle, and get the best of him and then not be afraid to have fun with that, enjoy that side of the sport if you can back it up on the track.
TD: Speaking to that authenticity angle, in recent years there's been talk about how things are being handled in a more PR-friendly manner. Are there steps that you guys are taking to bring out some of the personalities of the people you're covering, or to try to get some different angles that aren't exactly prepared ahead of time?
JG: Well, we encourage the drivers and the people within the industry to step outside their comfort zones and show more personality. The thing is, if they do that and then we use it against them, then they're going to be more hesitant. So we've got to find a good way to tell that side of a person, but where it benefits them, it benefits the broadcasters. You've got a guy like Clint Bowyer, he's completely open and willing to make fun of himself and open himself up for criticism and it plays out extremely well for fans. But then there's others that are more reserved. And so, you can't have somebody be somebody that they're not.
But I can tell you from going from the driver's seat to the broadcast booth, I get it, because as a driver I just wanted to focus on the race and be at my best from a performance standpoint. I didn't want to create controversy, but at the same time I know that the rivalry I had with Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the early part of my career is what put me on the map. So I try to, when I'm face-to-face with guys, encourage them to do more things like that, things that maybe are slightly outside of their comfort zone.
TD: You mention the perspective you have going from driving to broadcasting with Fox. This is now your fifth year, their 20th year, but your fifth year going into the booth. What have been some of the biggest things that you've noticed as far as things that you wouldn't have paid attention to as a driver that you notice now?
JG: Oh, there's no doubt that I took for granted what the broadcasters did and what our TV partners do to bring our sport to fans. It's probably very similar to outsiders that can't fully appreciate what a race team has to do to prepare for a season or for Daytona. Same way for me, just how in-depth it is. The number of people that it takes, the team effort that it takes, and so I've really had a great time learning that side of it. I'm trying to understand it in a way where I figure out, "Okay, what can I bring? What have you guys been doing that I didn't realize? How can I enhance that? Is there something new or unique that I might be up to bring coming from the driver's seat and understanding what the competitors are going through?" So, it's been a great transition, and it's because of what a great team that we have.
TD: Adding to that, what are some of the biggest things you've been able to pick up from people like Darrell Waltrip or Mike Joy? Then on top of that, what are a few things that you have brought in, as you're the newer person on the team?
JG: For us, what we're trying to do is engage the fans, bring the human side of the driver, the crew chiefs, the pit crew members, the decision-makers into it. That's not always been my forte. I really like the technology. I like the aspect of the details of a setup or the aerodynamics of a car, and I think that there's a place for that conversation. But most of what you want to do is try to tell the fans something that they don't already know, and that's very challenging, especially on a race.
When a race is spectacular, our jobs are pretty easy. We just got to get the right camera angles and follow along and enjoy it, but when a race is maybe spread out in a long green-flag run, there's not a lot of action, then that's when you got to really work and earn your paycheck. I'm so fortunate that I get to work with a guy like Mike Joy, or we can go to Larry McReynolds, or our pit reporters. I mean, they're experienced, they know how to balance out building hype and expectations, as well as just telling the interesting stories that have been created either over the offseason or within the race.
TD: Now that Darrel Waltrip has retired, the booth is moving to two people, and you're taking over as the lead analyst, do you have a different approach? When did your preparation for this start, and what's the game plan for this season?
JG: I think every year that I've been a part of this, I've tried to up my game. I try to get more knowledgeable about the people, stay on top of any changes within the sport, whether it be crew chief changes, driver changes, sponsor changes, or car changes. Also, it's about trying to utilize some of the technology that we have, like the S&T data that we have access to now, that was new last year. And so you're like, "How can we expand on that?" The teams are utilizing it more and more to be more competitive. How can we utilize that to tell more of the interesting inside stories?
DW is a mentor of mine and he taught me a lot about just, you have to be authentic, you have to be yourself. You have to understand that what we're doing as broadcasters is just to try to keep the people there and keep them coming back the next week, and that means some days you've got to call out some folks. If they make a mistake on the track, you got to be honest and call it like it is. Other days, you've got to just sit back and let the action on the track speak for itself.
I think it's just this balance of the action on the track, the knowledge that you have, the instinctiveness. The thing I always fall back on is I just put myself in the driver's seat and try to think, "What is that driver going through right now as we close down the laps in the Daytona 500?" What would I do if I was in there to try to win this race if I'm fifth right now? I try to take that approach every single weekend. Nobody really necessarily told me that or taught me that. That's what I did as a driver and that's what I try to do as a broadcaster.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.