NASCAR Transcripts: Blake Harris and Jeff Gordon – Press Conference – 7.7.24

THE MODERATOR: We’re going to continue with our post-race press conferences here in Chicago. We’ve now been joined by our race-winning team crew chief, Blake Harris, and Jeff Gordon. Thank you for joining us. Congratulations on the win. Just in the interest of time, we’re going to open it up for questions.

Q. Blake, the decision to keep Alex on the wet tires, what went into that from your perspective, and as the crew chief having the option all day to decide which tire you were going to choose, how did that impact how you called this race?

BLAKE HARRIS: Yeah, I think it was really tough at the beginning when we didn’t know it was a little bit of rain coming, not. That was probably the harder portion of the day, trying to understand how much it would rain and if we were okay to be back on slicks or not.

But really at the end, we knew we needed to run through Stage 2. We had kind of tore our car up a little bit, so I was concerned if it went full dry, like aero wise, we might struggle a little bit to keep pace. Not a lot of fast spots on this track, but I do think it means something — we had a pretty good hole in the nose and the splitter was pretty torn up.

We had kind of made our opinion if we were in a good spot to pick up stage points today that we would take them, and really as the clock was winding down, you’re like, all right, well, if I plant us back in 20th or 25th here, we’re not going to have the rest of stage 3 to make it up, which was kind of what we had looked at at the beginning of the race.

Yeah, I just asked him, like our threshold, we kind of had a number based on pace of where we thought we would be, and it was getting really close to the end of that stage, and I knew a lot of guys would take slicks. I thought maybe a few more would stay out in front of us.

I think just as far as the 60 staying out in front of us, that was a perfect scenario for us, and really thought after a couple laps we were a lot better than him.

Yeah, just the cautions — the caution played perfect. I don’t know that we had a lot of room to give. Even if the 45 had a clean lap there, it would have been super tight.

Yeah, really just banking off that threshold of what we thought it was going to be, and that was our opportunity to win was staying out, and we kind of discussed that. Once I had his confidence of knowing that’s what we needed to do, as well, it made my call pretty easy.

Q. For Jeff, what do you hope this does for Alex? His 11 top 10s is second in the series, but he hadn’t won in so long there were a lot of people questioning whether he could do it.

JEFF GORDON: It’s so important. These guys work so hard, and certainly I get to spend time with guys like Blake and you see him come into Hendrick Motorsports and there’s a lot of pressure and expectations there, so that’s the same way for Alex and all the drivers.

It’s important that you gel and the chemistry comes and the effort is there, but you’ve got to win. At some point you’ve got to win, not just because you’re at Hendrick Motorsports, it’s because it’s really hard to get the team where they need to be to compete at the highest level on a regular basis, make the playoffs and then compete at a high level in the playoffs without victories coming to just remind everybody that we’re doing the right things and we’re working in the right direction and we’re working well together.

Yeah, I think today was a huge day for both of these guys and the whole team. I couldn’t be more proud or happy for the whole group because I know what kind of pressure they’ve been feeling, and it’s amazing for all of us now to have all four cars in the playoffs.

It’s probably a bit of a reset now, right, of, okay, that weight just keeps getting heavier and heavier every week, and I think it just makes it harder and harder, and then they come in here and get asked a lot of questions.

I’m sure for both of them, it’s nice to have this one off their back and then just start focusing forward on getting where they need to be in the playoffs.

Q. Speaking of pressure, it would be nice if this race could go without rain, but I’m curious, how do you feel about this event overall and whether it should remain on the schedule?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I don’t know about you, but I saw a huge number of upgrades and improvements this weekend from just learning things from last year, and so I felt like the overall experience for everybody was a really, really good one. Again, the weather was good all weekend until today, and yeah, you want to have good weather and that’s important for an event, but at the same time, other than for the fans and the competitors that are soaking wet and having to deal with the pressures that Blake and the crew chiefs and the drivers are having, because those are tricky conditions. Those are really challenges conditions. You’re going and you’re stopping and you’re slowing down and it’s hard to get into a rhythm, not to mention just finding the grip if you’re a driver, trying to figure out where the line is and how to manage the tires and everything else.

But other than those things, I think from a fan perspective watching at home or from where I was sitting in a drier place, it makes for a great show. You like on a road course in my opinion a drying track versus a dry track going to wet.

At the beginning of the race I was blown away that they were able to be on slicks when these guys came in and put the slicks on, I was just like, are you kidding me? No way, it’s too early, it’s too wet. They got heat in the tires and the tires stuck.

They put on a great show. At the end I thought, no way can you stay out on tires and win this thing, and they did.

I thought other than just running out of time and not being able to get the full race in and having to stop — it’s a really entertaining event, and I hope it does stay on the circuit. I think this is a really important race for us because as I’m walking around the city yesterday and today, it’s hearing people that are saying, ooh, the NASCAR race is here, and you can just tell that there are people that are here even in the hotels and in the restaurants that they know that NASCAR is here. They know that there’s a race happening here, and a lot of those folks maybe never watched NASCAR before.

It’s a great way for me to not only show that we’re capable of racing in locations like this and right in the center of a major metropolitan city, which is an important part of the market and the exposure, but it’s also opening up the door to a lot of new fans.

I not only hope we can continue to come back here, I hope we can try to experiment with this in other places, too.

Q. You’ve been in the sport a while. Having a street race, doing something this unique, would you have even anticipated this 10 years ago and for it to be able to have the success that it did?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I go back to when I got a chance to see the sport take off and just become huge, and it was taking risks, taking chances, going to new places, going to Indianapolis, and those things happened because people are willing to take chances and do bold things. That’s what you have to do to continue to grow a sport, or if you’ve gotten into a lull how to bring it back out of it.

I think these types of moves are very, very important, and I look forward to seeing — even though the Clash, I’m not crazy about that, I love that we were in a new market, it was different, there was a DJ and music, and it felt very entertaining to be a part of it, especially for the fans that were there.

Continue to explore things like that. I know it’s got to make financial sense for everybody, too, but I think that’s very, very important to where the sport is heading, and not just in this country.

Q. Blake, everybody is talking about this is Alex Bowman’s ending an 80-race winless streak, but for you this is your first win after 85 races as a Cup crew chief, so how does it feel to win a Cup race?

BLAKE HARRIS: I don’t know that I’ve got the words for it yet. I’ve thought about it a lot. Over the last year and a half we’ve been in position to win some races, and we just haven’t got there.

As Jeff said, you go in every week no matter kind of what’s been thrown at us or things that happen or where we’re at in point scenarios, there’s no better answer than getting the win.

You feel, at least for myself, I go to all the guys and I tell them, put the pressure on me, let’s go to work. You do your job, we’re going to get it done. Eventually got to deliver on that. I think they’ve delivered a lot, and it was nice to finally be able to deliver the win.

We’ve got a young team. We’ve got a young pit crew, a young road crew that we’ve been working really hard on and building. I think I’ve got like six or seven guys on this team that it’s their first time to ever be in Victory Lane in the Cup Series, so that’s a big deal. They’ve got to know what it feels like, and it’s important to know what it feels like now so that once we’re in the playoffs, it’s not new.

It’s not building pressure of what’s been in the past. They know what it looks like now. Super excited to get the monkey off our back. Really excited for Alex. I thought he drove a heck of a race today. I felt like we had speed all weekend, and yeah, it feels really good.

Q. Jeff, going back to what you were saying about there’s pressure to win, not just at Hendrick but just period in the Cup Series, I don’t know if you heard Alex’s NBC interview, but he mentioned the brain injury from two years ago, he mentioned the broken back last year. He sounded like a guy who basically had saved his job. I know we don’t deal in rumors and expectation, but there’s been a lot of chatter. How far does this win go toward shoring up his long-term future and securing him at Hendrick?

JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I think everybody recognized, one, he’s been great. He’s put in all the effort. He’s done all the right things. Blake coming on board had a lot to do with Alex and their relationship and who he thought could be the right fit for him, and they’ve done a great job together.

But it hasn’t come without challenges. He’s been through a lot.

You really want guys like that to find their way when they’ve had to struggle and have — just seems like right as he’s getting into a stride, boom, something would happen. I think that’s why this is so important, not just for him and the team but for him personally.

As far as we’re concerned, Ally loves him and we love him. He’s a car guy, and there’s a reason why he came to Hendrick Motorsports, and he’s proven he can win. Today was not an easy set of circumstances, and he proved he can win in these tough conditions, as well, on a road course.

I understand why people want to talk and — it’s a tough business. When you’re at Hendrick Motorsports, you do expect, especially when the other three have won, to be in that same category, and it hasn’t been happening.

Hopefully this dispels a lot of the rumors.

Q. What has it been like for Alex over these past two years where it’s just been one setback after another?

BLAKE HARRIS: I think we started — I started talking to these guys about coming there right around the time or right after his concussion and we were kind of in the middle of working all that out. I wasn’t there with him day in and day out, but we were kind of working towards me being hired there while he was in the middle of that. Certainly got to come in on the backside of kind of him getting better and all those things from that.

We started off leading the points. When I came in ’23, we were putting really good races together. We had really good runs going, and then he had his sprint car accident. That setback, I know for him personally, we talk about it all the time, like he came in and he’s like, man, we were leading the points and I let everybody down.

I don’t think that’s the case. We came back and had some shots throughout the season that just never materialized.

I think when I talked about before getting a win for the team, as Jeff mentioned, getting a win for him, he knows — we’ve had speed to do it a lot, and we’ve had a lot of times — we didn’t get 11 top 10s and put ourselves in position for a lot more top 5s than we’ve had and a few shots at the win by not having speed.

I think the speed has been there. We talked, we had an engine failure at Loudon and we had an engine failure here last year at Chicago. As we talk through those things, he’s like, man, right as we’re in this point battle, and I’m like, we’re one race away from that the not mattering. Last year we didn’t show up with the speed week in and week out like we’ve had. That’s been the biggest difference for me.

Each week that we’ve had something thrown at us, we reset, look at the next challenge, what we have the next week ahead, and somehow I feel like he’s done a really good job through all the things that he’s had to kind of compartmentalize week to week and just the next task at hand. Honestly, that red flag for us was probably the best thing today. After we cleared the 23 out and tore our car up, he’s all bummed because he knew how good our car was, and I was like, man, it’s what we’ve got now. We’re 12th, we’re not 20th, so let’s regroup and go at it.

Really I think the way today worked out has kind of been how our entire time has been together. It’s like, just on to the next.

Really excited for him. I’m glad he had the opportunity to throw it back on his shoulders there at the end and get it done. He drove some phenomenal laps there at the end, and if he doesn’t do that, that 45 gets to us pretty easily, I think.

Q. Blake, can you talk about, unlike last year, NASCAR gave the teams plenty of notice of when this race was going to end. Can you walk us through how you felt about when you got that confirmation of when the race was going to end and how that played into how you called the rest of the race?

BLAKE HARRIS: Yeah, NASCAR told us this year before the race even started, like hey, we’re going to give you at a set amount of time, it’ll be before the first stage, when we’re going to say when the time limit is up. So instantly from that point when we had that number, our engineers are running, hey — especially when we got that red flag, we think it’s going to end if it stays green at this point.

Then you’ve got to throw in the dry pace, the wet pace, as the wet pace is getting closer to the dry pace, what’s that looking like.

I think — I talked a little bit about that threshold that we had, set number of when we thought we were going to have to be back to dry tires, and there was a couple cautions there before the end of Stage 2 that really set that up for us to know, okay, we can probably get a bunch of stage points here at a minimum.

Then as those cautions kept coming, we got to that stage, and it was like, wait a second, we have like eight, ten laps here to go, we’re still not to my number on lap time. Like there’s a chance. If there’s a caution or two, there’s a chance.

So yeah, I think that them giving us a heads up on that is a huge deal. The ability to choose the tires, right, like we go immediately wet, you choose when it’s dry. I know it probably didn’t make Jeff real comfortable here, as he had mentioned, on the choices we made. But yeah, I think just putting it in our hands lets us put some strategy out there.

I think from where I stand, it’s great to have a few different ways to go about it. I 100 percent thought coming to get slicks was the right choice, and I didn’t feel like we could short the stage because our car was torn up, and really with eight or ten laps I knew it was going to take some perfect laps. At that point we still had to go get the lead, but I felt pretty confident we were a good chunk better than that 60 car, and yeah, just enough.

Q. Blake, this is your second year with Alex, obviously. It’s been well-documented how 2023 was a really challenging year for him, not just on the track but even more so personally off the track. I’m sure you got to know him on a deeper level in that sense. Speaking on Alex as a person, how important was this win for him and for the team going forward in that regard?

BLAKE HARRIS: Yeah, I think as a whole, I felt like we had a pretty good relationship early on. That’s part of — I feel like Alex had a big say in my ability to come to Hendrick Motorsports.

So going into that, I knew he kind of picked me. Like I was his guy. We’d go to the Chili Bowl at the same time, hang out. I’d pop into his shop when he’s working on his midgets. All that stuff is really easy. The relationship stuff is easy.

I think you have to have — when we have those bad weekends when stuff is not going right, whether for him personally or on track or whatever we have, we just have to be honest with each other, come back and be like, hey, buddy, I don’t know that we executed this correctly, or hey, man, I didn’t make the right call there; if I had that back, I’d love to do it differently.

We do that really in an open setting with all our teams. We sit down with the crew chiefs and some of the management, Jeff is there, the Jeffs and Chad, and we talk about that stuff through every race, good or bad, and unfortunately there was more bad for us at times than good.

What I can’t say enough about, and I’ve tried to explain this to some guys, and I mean it, I walk in that shop every day, and anytime I have any kind of one-on-one with Jeff or Chad or whatever, Mr. H, the only question I ever get is what can we do to help the 48 win. It’s never, why did you make that call or why — that’s all — it’s on to the next.

Really it’s been that way for Alex and myself both. When you’ve got 600 people that kind of wrap your arms around you every week, and every time you think you’re in the weeds, they pull you out. To have that kind of support with the pressure that we have just makes it doable. Like you fight every week, and when it’s not going your way when you can look all these guys in the eyes and know they’ve got your back and willing to do whatever it takes to get the last car in the playoffs, I can’t say enough. Incredible organization. I truly feel like I’ve got a lot of people around me and behind me ever day, and that’s how it’s doable.

Q. Blake, when I talked to Alex yesterday, he basically said that logistically this race is difficult for you because of the setting. How do you deal with that, and as things went on, obviously it turned out really well for you. How did you adjust, and do you feel the same way as Alex did?

BLAKE HARRIS: Logistically, yeah. I think there’s a lot of challenges that come with this place in general, and a lot of it just kind of comes from the fact that we don’t have enough data here. Everything we do is built off of data. We’ll take this last race and be like, okay, now we’ve seen two versions of a wet track and a drying track and all that and we’ll build our notes off of all that.

To me, obviously it was a great weekend, but back to some of the relationship stuff with Alex and the logistics, Hendrick Motorsports put us up in some phenomenal spots here in the city, and we get like a 15-, 20-minute walk in, and Alex stayed with us in the team hotel this week.

We got here, I think we come into the garage maybe three, four hours before the track walk, and we were going to do the track walk together, and we go drop our bags at the hotel, we’d walk down to the track, garage opens, we’re going through tech, he’s right there. We were still trying to get through tech, so he went and did the track walk without me. But every morning we’d walk in and grab a coffee together.

I love this place. I love everything about it. I think we’re super fortunate to have what we have at HMS and how we get set up. But man, just being able to walk through this city — we didn’t have to deal with — it was really nice weather when we were doing that. I love it. I love everything about it.

Q. Alex won four races in 2021 and then he had injuries in both 2022 and 2023. I remember Denny Hamlin whenever he had his injury about a decade ago, he said it took a year before he felt like he was fully comfortable back in the car. Do you think Alex is at that point physically where he’s finally 100 percent and he’s showing that he’s that same driver that went out and was a weekly contender for the win a few years ago?

JEFF GORDON: I mean, I can only speak to some of the comments or the conversations I’ve had with Alex over the years when he’s had the injuries, but I think — I had some cracked ribs one time, so I’m just trying to compare some things.

I think race car drivers, they come up and they have accidents and sometimes you have injuries, and you find out how tough you are mentally and physically and how bad you want to do it.

Alex has been through a few significant injuries, and he’s come back I feel like stronger each time. I think it’s helped him motivate himself, find out how much he loves what he does and is privileged to do that, and that means that he’s going to work really hard to recover.

Yet I think through that, of course I think you’re going to have some setbacks. Just being away from your team, even for a week or two weeks, not being out there on the track I think affects drivers these days. We saw something similar with Chase Elliott when he was out of the car, and it’s not always necessarily the physical piece of it. It’s just, this is tough. It’s just hard to win, very hard to win, and the cars are difficult to drive. It’s hard to get the whole team all together at the perfect time and for it all to come together and the right strategy and everything. It’s very difficult.

You add in then an injury or some of the significant injuries that Alex has had to deal with, yeah, it’s going to set you back, and it’s going to take some time to get back to 100 percent, not just physically but with your team.

Q. Jeff, you guys now have four drivers with wins on road or street courses. How does it affect preparation for these races, and how much confidence does it give the organization as you arrive at these types of tracks moving forward?

JEFF GORDON: You meant that’s for Blake, right? I think you need to take that one.

Man, I’m out of that side of the business. I sit in on the media so they know I have their back, and if there’s something that pops up that I can contribute to, I do, but it’s pretty rare. That is not my category right now, so go ahead, Blake.

BLAKE HARRIS: I can touch on that. Even before I got here with the Next-Gen car, I thought HMS has done a great job with the road course program. We’ve had several guys in contention. Alex was in contention at COTA in ’22 and arguably had a shot to win that on the last lap.

I can just speak to it from the crew chief side. I know Jeff sees a couple meetings a week when we do it all together, but man, we meet almost every day as a group, and we go and we’re done with the last road course and we lay it all out and we just step through the stuff that — how we came up with the setups and where we’re going to the next place and what we think is applicable, and really it’s been the most open group setting that I’ve ever been in.

We’re racing each other hard a lot, right, and at the end of the day, one of those guys is right behind us at the end, I’m pretty nervous because I know what they’ve got.

I just think as we’ve progressed, man, really good guys to work with, and I just think collectively with our performance group and our engineers and our crew chiefs and everybody really pulling the same direction, with a really good baseline of what we’ve had, it feels like we’re just continuing to build on that, and yeah, we just work through it together.

JEFF GORDON: I guess what I could add is I’ve seen that evolve tremendously over the years. We didn’t used to sit in a room together and share information and just be an open book. I can remember at times where it’s in the database, just go find it. These guys, the way they communicate, the way that they support one another, meaning crew chiefs, drivers, engineers, the whole group, and just constantly trying to push the envelope, how do we make our individual team better but how do we make the whole organization better, as well as working with our partners at Chevrolet.

That’s been fun to watch.

But I think at Hendrick Motorsports what makes me really proud is the detail and the depth of the organization and the way that they get to go take on a challenge.

So when you have a new racetrack like this that’s a challenging street course with a lot of the unknowns and not the data and no testing or anything like that, then I love to watch them go to work on how they prepare for something like that and go excel at it, and if they don’t, how much that motivates them to make sure that they do the next time they go back.

I think that’s pretty much anywhere they go, that’s a new setting, new environment, and has been for many years.

Q. Blake, on one hand, I feel like it was a really easy decision to stay out because the only chance to win the race was to be in a very defensive position, but then I think about it kind of looking back, you guys are in a points battle, too, and if it goes poorly, whether defending, you guys get crashed or a tire blows or whatever, then that’s your points margin or if someone else wins the race you’re out that way, too. What all is factoring into that decision because I know you and Alex were going back and forth even in real time about those sort of things?

BLAKE HARRIS: Yeah, I preach to all my guys a lot every week, I’m like, man, don’t worry about this, got to make the playoffs and all these things. You just go attack the next thing. We’re just going to go do the next stop, the next hang, whatever it is, to try to pull some pressure off those guys.

But to be honest, you get down to these last seven, eight races and you’re looking at that cut line, I think we’ve been strong enough and we have the pace where I’m like, man, if we do a really good job and don’t have any big setbacks, we could legit be eighth, ninth in points, which maybe is good enough to get there. So it’s kind of in the back of the mind, it’s like, if I’ve got a legit shot win the race, we’ve got to do it. But if it’s a slim chance and I’ve got to bleed 15, 20 points, that’s going to be a hard sell, too.

At the end there once I knew I had his confidence of understanding like hey, man, we’re going to have to go back and the 20 is here, and how many cars are you going to pass in eight, nine laps, if he was like, man, that’s what we’ve got to do because I’m smoked in here, but he knew where his tires were at. He knew the pace that he was running and I kind of tried to lay out what I was seeing and what I thought was going to happen, and really especially with that caution — even without that caution, I knew we were going to have three laps maybe before those guys would really get some pace up on us if it strung out.

So that really only left three, four laps of potential green based on the time limit. Really, yeah, it was an easy decision. If he thought his stuff was smoked, we probably had to have a conversation about where we were going to be, but all those buffer cars just played in perfect, and I think his confidence of knowing he could go get that 60 car and get some space put on him, that was all of it, because I think it was going to be down to the last two or three corners if the 45 hadn’t gotten in the fence.

We needed every bit of it, every straightaway that he had, pull over cooling the tires as he’s at speed trying to keep those things to temp. I don’t know that he could have executed any better.

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