Transcript: Rudy Fugle and Jeff Gordon – Atlanta Motor Speedway

THE MODERATOR: We will roll right into it. We are joined by Jeff Gordon, vice-chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, and we are going to go ahead and jump right into media questions.

Q. We haven’t seen Byron win this late in the season I don’t think ever in the Cup Series. What has it been like to see him grow over the last several years, and not only that, but have four wins, 27 points, 10 points above second in the playoff standings? You guys are showing that you’re the ones to beat when it heads to Phoenix.

JEFF GORDON: Yeah, it’s a long season, right, so when you get a win early in the season, it’s great because you get that first win, you feel like maybe you’ve locked yourself into the playoffs, and maybe even you get a second win early in the season and you go, okay, we’re doing something right here, and it’s special.

But these summer races, it really tests you. Trying to find the right setups at some of these tracks as well as your competitors are catching up. It’s all about timing and getting there at the start of the playoffs and peaking kind of at that point.

You’ve got to give a lot of credit to our folks at Hendrick and certainly with William and Rudy and what they’re doing as a team to keep the momentum going because they’re having an incredible season, and I just hope that they can keep that going into the playoffs because I really — I just see a spark in them this year, just the way they’re clicking and communicating and the chemistry between William, Rudy and the whole team has been fun to watch.

Exciting to see this kind of blossoming career of a young talent in a driver and what that might be able to do long into the future.

Q. William goes down a lap after the wreck with LaJoie; do you see any difference in his composure to be able to come back from something like that and win a race?

JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I think it’s a combination of experience, going through the ups and downs of the sport. But I think more importantly, it’s when you and your team are clicking and things are going well, you don’t get so caught up in when things are — something bad happens in a race. You go, okay, no problem, we’ve been through this before, we can fight our way back. Or let’s just make the most of the day.

That’s what good, high-quality teams do, especially ones that have confidence in what they’re doing, and they just — you just don’t panic. You stay calm.

I think even by winning this race, that’s only going to help them for the next time that they’re in a situation like this even more.

Q. A week after Chicago, what kind of impact do you think last week will have on future schedules and where NASCAR will race in the future?

JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I mean, that was the biggest thing for me was you’re just praising NASCAR and Ben Kennedy and all the folks, the decision makers, Julie Giese, all the people that made that happen, especially after dealing with the challenging circumstances with the weather.

But I think just now the opportunities are sort of endless. If we could put on a street course race in downtown Chicago, then where can we go next? What can we do next?

I think certainly comes at a good time as you look at TV negotiations and trying to build the sport and what the future looks like.

I think all of us in the sport were very excited. Not to mention being able to race in those kinds of conditions. That was really, really wet. To be able to do it on a street course was pretty impressive.

THE MODERATOR: We’ve also been joined by winning crew chief Rudy Fugle. He is also available for questions.

Q. Jeff, it’s about Alex and Chase. You look at the points position they’re in, they theoretically could make it on points. From an organizational standpoint, are you thinking that hey, their path to the playoffs is still points, or are you changing that mindset of hey, we need to win over these next seven weeks?

JEFF GORDON: I mean, I think Alex is closer than Chase is. I don’t know where that — I haven’t looked at the points after today.

I know that we want to get wins. It’s sort of one of those situations where if you don’t feel like you’re capable of winning, how far are you really going to go in the playoffs?

I know those guys want to win, but they also had some situations that got them behind.

You get in any way you can, but it goes back to what I was talking about with the 24 team, about building momentum at the right time, and if you get it early, how do you maintain it.

For those guys, if they can get some momentum going here quickly or find a way to get to Victory Lane, then it’s all about picking up their game when the playoffs come around.

Q. (Indiscernible) when you look at their situations with missing races, is there any regret or anything of letting them do extracurricular stuff that kind of put them in this position?

JEFF GORDON: Well, I snowboarded my whole career on off weekends and over the off-season. That I think takes care of that answer.

Then you look at racing, William is on his way to Slinger to go race there.

What we do is talk to the drivers, talk to the crew chiefs, how does it impact them on Sundays. Does it enhance what they’re doing on Sundays? Do you support it? How does it fit in your schedule with your meetings and everything?

We don’t look at it first and foremost of hey, what are the risks and chances of getting hurt. We want to make sure they’re in the best equipment possible and that you take those precautions and you be smart about your decisions.

I think it has opened up some conversations about what we do later in the season around the playoffs. We want the drivers to be a part of the decisions that happen because we want to support them in what they do to either relax and enjoy life because you can’t just surround yourself by nothing but driving race cars, or you’re going to have weaknesses in your racing skills at some point in the season.

I think it’s as much about doing things that make you happy as it is about your race skill and fine-tuning that.

Q. Jeff, you mentioned a few minutes ago you’ve seen a spark with this team this year. You as well as anyone know that it’s all about team chemistry and team dynamics. Can you go into what you’ve seen from this team that now it’s all clicking and we’re seeing the version of William Byron that you all hired him for many years ago?

JEFF GORDON: Well, the first spark was when I saw this guy — remind me, was it the day after Christmas or the day after New Year’s?

RUDY FUGLE: Day after Christmas.

JEFF GORDON: I was over at Hendrick Motorsports the day after Christmas not expecting to see anybody there because I don’t remember why I was there, but he was in his office working. I was like, man, I’m like, if you’re working, you’re going to have a good year. We kind of laughed and joked about it.

But I think his commitment, dedication is one. I think William also shows the same kind of commitment and dedication. I think that just really spills out throughout the whole team.

When somebody sees others putting in extra effort, then they don’t want to be the weak link, and that could be the driver, the crew chief, a pit crew member, an engineer, whatever it may be, and I think that’s what’s builds a strong unit is when people are just putting in as much effort as possible.

I think we’ve always known William had the talent, it was just about getting the experience as a young driver racing at this level, getting him with somebody that believes in him and is providing the car and now the pit crew is crushing it.

They just seem like a complete team. I don’t want to jinx it because it’s a long season, as I mentioned earlier, and it’s all about you’ve got to keep that momentum going all the way through the playoffs. This is great and I love what they’re doing and I really believe in them to do it all the way through the end of the season, but I don’t want to rave on them too much because I want them to keep digging.

But I know they will. I know they will. They’ll be head down, digging.

RUDY FUGLE: Long ways to go.

Q. Rudy, how do you rate yourself as a meteorologist, and could you recount what the strategy and the decisions were toward the end as you see the blob coming your way?

RUDY FUGLE: I’m terrible. I was probably 20 laps off. So whatever that was on time, I’m terrible.

My wife is an earth science teacher and did some meteorology stuff. I was hoping some of that would rub off, but it hasn’t, so still have a ways to go.

Q. What was the decision you made?

RUDY FUGLE: Where we were running, it made some decisions easier. Some things fell in our lap, running right around 20th, our car wasn’t handling great, so we saw a bunch of cars — half of the field in front of us, about 10 of the top 20 came down, so we copied them.

We had already just pit, so we took rights and jumped those, so then we ran that next run to the end of the stage and we stayed in our position okay, and it made it easy to stay out because we could go to about — we were projecting we could go to 210, but then as he took the lead and he ran wide open for those 20 laps, it was closer to 200, but still, we had a ways to go.

Q. Jeff, this is now the first time or this is the most wins that the 24 car has had since you had four back in 2014. We talked a little bit about the big picture impact that Chicago had last week, but speaking big picture, there are still a lot of people both inside and outside of the sport who recognize NASCAR from your accomplishments driving the 24.

In terms of the big picture, what do you think it does for NASCAR to have the 24 car, your car competing for wins week in and week out and being among the cars that are in contention for the championship?

JEFF GORDON: Well, first of all, I think William does an amazing job representing the 24 and Hendrick and the sport in general, as a competitor as well as just a fine young man. Our sponsors, as well, love him.

To me right now it’s about building superstars and recognizable faces and names. That’s what’s going to help grow the sport. We’ve lost a lot of them in a short period of time, and it’s about building them back up.

I think William is on the cusp of doing that by going to Victory Lane, winning races and leading as many laps as he has, and that just opens up more doors and opportunities to get him in front of more kind of mainstream media or get his face and name out there that I think will continue to help grow the sport. It’s come along at a great time.

Not to mention I run into a lot of 24 fans all the time that say they miss me not being out there, and I just quickly say, well, yeah, but you’re a William Byron fan, right? Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. I know they’re really happy that that 24 with William is still getting it done out there.

Q. You talked about William being more of a mainstream face. You did a lot of that during your career just because you were so recognizable. What have you told him and what do you tell him now about dealing with that?

JEFF GORDON: Well, it’s just the opportunities have to present themselves. It can come through a sponsor. It can come through maybe something that NASCAR has set up or comes from winning races or something that sort of resonates with either mainstream media or the fans or fans that are outside the sport, casual fans.

I just tell him, keep doing what you’re doing, but I think I’ve made this pretty clear in the past. I do want our drivers to reach just slightly outside their comfort zone when it comes to the media and opportunities, just so they can open up more doors for their own brand, and it helps us sell sponsors, and I think it helps grow the sport.

Q. Rudy, when he spun through the infield earlier, how much damage did that do I would assume to the underbody of the car because to the naked eye it didn’t look like any of the fenders were damaged.

RUDY FUGLE: Yeah, so it ripped out the crush panel when we got the flat tire. The flat tire did all the damage. It ripped out the crush panel, so that’s a decent amount of damage.

Probably not as much of a detriment as maybe the old car, but some, and then the whole front of the diffuser was the biggest part. It’s pretty destroyed from the tire coming apart. I’m sure we lost a lot of downforce.

It probably helped some of our overall speed maybe, but the downforce made our handling worse and why we struggled to get back to the front. So definitely not what we wanted to do.

Q. Jeff, in here earlier we had Goodyear announcing that this was going to be their 2,000th Cup winner. The 1,000th winner was another 24 car driven by you. What’s that like for you just for Byron to keep that legacy with milestones like that?

JEFF GORDON: Yeah, I love it. We spent some time with some of the folks at Goodyear over in Le Mans with the Garage 56 project. They did a tremendous job with that, and it just reminded me of all the work that they’ve put in over the years for NASCAR.

I think these high-banked oval tracks, whether it’s Bristol or here, brake heat, whatever it is, it’s not an easy type of race car or conditions to build a tire for. Give them a lot of credit for what they do.

We’re certainly very proud to represent them. I didn’t know about the 1,000th until a couple weeks ago when they said, hey, we’re coming up on 2,000, and when that happened today and I saw Stu Grant and that cool trophy that they gave William, I realized it’s 24 and 24. I love it. I hope William gets the 3,000th. Can you get to 3,000?

RUDY FUGLE: I’m not going to.

JEFF GORDON: I won’t be here, Rudy might not, but William is young enough.