Jeff Gordon will wrap up his first stint as a television commentator at Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 when Fox’s 16-race portion of broadcasting this NASCAR season ends.
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion who retired from driving after last season, has been considered a success behind the microphone. He’s done it sitting beside fellow analyst Darrell Waltrip, also one of NASCAR’s legendary drivers – and talkers.
Gordon has also been through some controversy, sparring verbally with driver Brad Keselowski after Gordon criticized Keselowski for a penalty during June’s race at Pocono. Keselowski wondered whether Gordon, who has part ownership in Jimmie Johnson’s team, could be impartial in the booth.
Gordon talked with the Observer’s David Scott about that issue and more – including his potential future as a talk-show host – in between practices Friday for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
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Q: Is there anything you’ve learned about racing from your perspective in the booth that you didn’t know from before?
A: “I haven’t learned anything new about racing, but I’ve learned how the broadcast works and what kind of effort goes into it. Why things happen, why we focus on something, how to gather that information, the radio information, the camera shots.
“Otherwise I’ve really just learned how much I love racing. I wasn’t learning much about anything else when I was in the race car. When you’re with your team, in the garage, that’s your focus, your attention. There’s no way you can learn more about anything from the outside. Now I wish I could get more inside! Up here, knowledge is key, the more information you have from teams on how to find speed, how to work fuel mileage or pit strategy, all that knowledge helps you up (in the booth).”
Q: What’s been your biggest surprise about working as a race commentator?
A: “How much I’ve enjoyed it. It’s fun, and I have not missed being out there on track. I love racing and love to see what teams are doing from this perspective.”
Q: How difficult has it been learning a new craft like broadcasting?
A: “It’s like making a lap around Sonoma. I might miss one corner and then hit another. I’m not perfect and I’m a perfectionist. Sometimes I can be at a loss for words, and sometimes there are pauses where I go with the ‘ums and ers’ or my brain just goes blank. Sometimes I’ll go down a path and can’t find the ending to it. And everything has to last in little clips – get in and out of it. That’s the toughest challenge for me. I like to go and stretch it out.
“But I think I do a good job of explaining things to the viewers. I’m pretty fresh off last year so I have a good idea. The sport is evolving so fast, though, so you need to get inside. Larry McReynolds does a good job of getting that information for us, working contacts, going into the shops. He’s been doing that for years and we tap into that.”
Q: How has it been in the booth with Darrell Waltrip?
A: “I’ve been a long time admirer and looked up to DW as a race car driver. Now I’ve gotten to know him on another level. I’m a bigger fan now as a person than I was as a race car driver. The rare thing for me is getting that last word in.” (Laughs).
Q: What did you take from the controversy with Keselowski, when he said it wasn’t?
A: “I have a lot of respect for Brad. He brings a lot to the sport. I’ve always tried to be open minded for somebody else’s point of view. I’m up here doing my job, trying to find things that are interesting. With Brad at Pocono, NASCAR said there’s a penalty and we analyzed it, that’s our job.
“I don’t mind a little bit of controversy. I’ve had some with Brad. He has his own unique perspective on the sport and driving.
Q: Do you understand his point about a conflict of interest with a commentator in the booth who has financial ties with a driver? Do you think of yourself as a journalist in the booth?
A: “My definition of a journalist might be different from what yours is. I’m an analyst and I’m there to entertain the viewer. Sometimes that’s journalism, but not all the time. We’re not digging up stories, trying to find team secrets and reveal them. We’re just trying to call the race.
“No doubt there are conflicts that we have to manage and deal with. But I’ve worked really hard not to go into meetings at Hendrick Motorsports and get inside information. I want to be as nonbiased as possible.
“But I still have relationships and friendships with drivers and teammates. That helps me, because it gives me a little more insight into a driver’s personality. I want to have some of that knowledge and information. Otherwise we’re just up here shooting in the dark and not having a good idea of what they’re doing. It’s a fine line and balance.”
Q: What happens after you finish at Sonoma?
A: “I’ll take some time off with the family. The kids are out of school, so we’re up north, in New York with them until they’re back in school. Hopefully you’ll see me at tracks the second half of the season when the kids are back in school.”
Q: You have been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace Michael Strahan as co-host with Kelly Ripa on the Live! television show. You have co-hosted the show before. So are you a candidate?
A: (Laughing) “I have a long relationship with them. I always stay in contact with them. Would it be an option I’d be open to? Yeah. But (the NASCAR booth) will come first for me. I love being in the booth, love being with Fox. I would do nothing to jeopardize that.”