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Interview With NASCAR Drivers Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon

Aired February 23, 2004 - 21:00   ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, NASCAR stars Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Gordon together. We'll take your calls. Rare, in depth and personal -- we'll cover it all with two NASCAR legends. And now you don't want to miss Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Gordon next on LARRY KING LIVE.
Great pleasure to have them both with us, two great athletes. In Mooresville, North Carolina, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He is winner of the 2004 Daytona 500. His father won that race six years ago to the day that he won it. His father died, of course, in that famous crash on the last turn at that speedway February 18 of 2001. In New York is Jeff Gordon, who won the Daytona 500 in 1997 and 1999. He's a four- time winner of the NASCAR Winston Cup series.

Dale, we'll start with you. Is the Daytona 500 your World Series? Is it your Masters?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR., NASCAR DRIVER: Yes, I think it is. I think it's the most important race that we run all year long. And I think it's the one race that really sets our sport apart from every other sport because it's the start of the season. We kind of kick it off with a bang and really try to get everybody's attention early. But it's always been an important race for us, and it's been great to win it.

KING: Why, Jeff, did they make that decision that your most important race would begin your year?

JEFF GORDON, NASCAR DRIVER: I don't know if it was necessarily planned out that way. I think a race like Daytona, you know, as it started out, I don't know if they actually planned for it to be the Super Bowl event, but it certainly has turned into that. And it's become so prestigious and such an awesome event that -- you know, it wasn't necessarily planned, I don't think, but it just has grown into being the biggest, you know, event that we have, and it just happens to start out the season. But you know, our sport's different than other sports. We don't have playoffs. We don't have, you know, a Super Bowl with a bracket (ph) type of sport.

KING: Dale, so the equivalent of your winning would be like the -- Babe Ruth's son winning the World Series, right -- I mean, if we were to look for an equivalent of a father/son story?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I suppose so. You know, but if you look at NASCAR, there's been a lot of families that have came in and out of the sport and -- like Ned Jarrett winning championships and his son, Dale Jarrett, winning championships and winning the Daytona 500 and such. So it's nothing we haven't seen before. Just the fact that, you know, my dad is considered maybe one of the greats or the greatest ever to drive a race car, it's a little bit bigger for me and a little bit bigger in the eye of the public. But you know, I'm excited. I'm ready to ride that train. It's been a lot of fun.

KING: Jeff, as a young man coming up in this sport, what did Dale Earnhardt, Sr., mean to your sport?

GORDON: Oh, he meant so much. I mean, you know, I think our sport is what it is today because of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. But I mean, Dale, you know, he really took it to the next level, and I mean, he was such a fierce competitor, but he understood the business. He understood, you know, the fans and the sponsors and every aspect of the competition versus the entertainment side of it. And he enjoyed it, enjoyed being out on that race car, and you know, he just put on a heck of a show.

KING: Do you drive, Dale, because your father drove?

EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I think -- yes, I guess so. I mean, if he were a plumber, I'd probably be a plumber, but...


KING: That's what I mean.

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I think it has -- I mean, but it has a lot to do with his character, you know, his -- how he -- just like Jeff was saying, how much he understood about the sport drew me in and made me understand more about it. I mean, if he hadn't been very good at it, would I have followed him into that sport? I don't know, you know? But the fact that he was good at it and understood it well, it was an open door for me.

KING: Where were you when he died?

EARNHARDT JR.: I was about 100 feet, probably about -- actually, yes, 100 feet ahead of him on the racetrack.

KING: So you knew about it right soon after, right?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, it wasn't too long after that.

KING: Would you have any question about not riding anymore, not driving?

EARNHARDT JR.: I think, initially, yes, you're kind of like, you know, I want to get as far away from this as I can. But I think race car drivers are known for being rough and tough, and I got a few bull- rider friends of mine that would have been pretty upset with me if I hadn't have gotten back on. So you know, we just -- we just get back on and go again and I think, you know, I...

KING: How long before you go again?

EARNHARDT JR.: Six, seven days.

KING: Wow. Jeff, were you in that race, too?

GORDON: Yes, I'd actually fallen out of the race and was actually watching it from a TV. And you know, I left the race, just like a normal race. I saw the accident and didn't -- I had seen Dale crash many, many times and, you know, just get right out and walk away. And you know, I went home and got the news when I got home.

KING: I'm not going to dwell on it, just to cover it, though. It didn't, Jeff, look like it was that serious, right?

GORDON: You know, a lot of times, the wrecks that don't look as bad are sometimes the one that the injuries, you know, are more severe. We've seen cars flip, you know, end over end, barrel roll at Daytona and guys walk away. You know, sometimes you can't tell from the camera just how hard that impact really is.

KING: Do you have fear, Jeff?

GORDON: I do. I mean, I think fear is what keeps us from going over the edge. I mean, as a race car driver, I don't think what makes a good race car driver is a fearless person. I think it's somebody that is comfortable being behind the wheel of something that's somewhat out of control. And we get, you know, paid to put it on the edge at all times and try to make our car go faster than everybody else out there. And I think if you don't have fear, you'll never know where that edge really is.

KING: You agree with that, Dale?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I do. I think, yes, we all have a little fear, as far as when you get ready to drive. But you know, you got to be able to block that out, and it has its own way of blocking itself out. When you're driving and concentrating on that race car, there's really nothing else to think about. There's not room for anything else. So you know, it all kind of subsides, at least until it's time to start again.

KING: Dale, your -- ESPN I understand is making a TV movie about your dad's life and death. It's supposed to air this summer. And your mother apparently did not cooperate. Is there any story behind that?

EARNHARDT JR.: I don't know anything about it, myself.

KING: Were you asked to play a part or cooperate at all?

EARNHARDT JR.: I haven't been asked to be a part of it, no.

KING: Jeff, when that tragedy occurred, did you think about not racing for awhile, Jeff Gordon?

GORDON: Well, you know, I -- unfortunately, I've been racing for a long time, since I was 6 years old, and I've seen friends of mine, you know, be seriously injured and have died in race cars. And you definitely question, you know, why certain things happen, why are certain things happening to, you know, somebody that doesn't happen to somebody else. And you know, it makes you really appreciate each day. And I know how much Dale and other people that I've known that have died, how much they loved what they did and loved being behind the wheel of a race car and wouldn't have it any other way, and it's the same way I look at it. You know, I think I respect, you know, the speeds and the safety and the competitors out there, but also know that, you know, it is very dangerous. And I put myself and choose to put myself in that position, knowing how safe I really think that it is, but that things can happen.

KING: We'll take a break. When we come back, we'll ask these two terrific athletes why they drive cars, what it takes to make a good or great race car driver? Is it inborn, or can you learn it? And we'll be taking your calls for two of the best, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Gordon, two champions.

By the way, Thursday night is the big Democratic Party debate. the four candidates will be with us, and I'll be the host and moderator, and we'll have quite a panel. And it'll all happen Thursday night for 90 minutes, starting at 9:00 PM Eastern from the University of Southern California. That's this Thursday night.

Right back with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Gordon. Don't go away.


EARNHARDT JR.: It's a hard race to win. You know, it's a season in itself, that entire race. There's just -- there's so many things going on, so much running through your mind. You know, I've seen it, been (UNINTELLIGIBLE) so many times my dad over and over. And I was taught so many lessons by this place before I ever got behind the wheel. And I'm glad I ain't got to worry about it no more. Man, this is awesome.


KING: We will be including more great scenes from the world of racing as we explore this hour with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Gordon.

By the way, that debate on Thursday night is co-sponsored by CNN and "The Los Angeles Times."

Dale, aside from the obvious influence of your father, why do you compete? Why do you like driving?

EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I -- I think it -- I don't know. Just controlling that car is real exciting, and just the thrill of, you know, racing side by side with somebody. I mean, when I get up beside Jeff, for example, on the racetrack and we race and we race real hard for a position through the corner, I mean, that's a thrill, you know, that -- aside from winning and this and that and the other, I mean, just driving through the corner with somebody side by side and he's in control of his car and I'm in control of mine -- you can't beat that. KING: In fact, I think we have video of the two of you dueling for second place in the 2003 Samsung/Radio Shack 500, the Texas Motor Speedway. You finished second, Dale. The race was won by Ryan Newman. And there we see the race.

Jeff, what's it like when you're going head to head with Dale?

GORDON: Oh, he's a great competitor. You know, he's very aggressive, and we -- we're fierce competitors out there. I mean, we want to finish ahead of one another, but we really -- we want to win. And I love racing with him. It's exciting, and I know the fans enjoy it. But I remember that day at Texas, it was -- both of our cars were pretty out of control coming to that checkered flag. And you know, when you get back there, and you know, you can talk about it on pit road and laugh about it. That's what it's all about.

KING: Dale, do you like it better when the other driver is also very good?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, obviously.

KING: No, I mean that because sometimes if you play against lesser performers, you worry more and perform less.

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes. I mean, I like the fact that, you know, with Jeff, you know, you can trust that he's in control of his car. Even when he's out of control, he knows what's going on. So...


GORDON: That's what he thinks, anyway.


EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, you can -- you just know that -- I mean, he's not going to take any chances that are going to take him or you out of the race, you know, because that's just -- he knows the repercussions from that, and me the same. You know, I'm not going to do something foolish that's going to cause him to -- you know, to have to fall out of the race. And you like racing side by side, racing hard with people like that. I mean, we can run into each other and still, you know, come out OK and be able to finish the race.

KING: Jeff, can you teach this or is it inborn, this skill?

GORDON: I mean, I think that a natural ability is definitely a part of it. But I've been racing -- my stepfather and my mom got me into a car when I was, you know, 5-and-a-half, 6 years old, so I don't know anything different. I mean, I've been behind the wheel of a race car for so long that I would hope that by now, I'm pretty good at it. But I do know that at the beginning, they recognized something that I had to be able to, you know -- you know, drive the car and have control of it and know what the car is doing and have a feeling. I'm thankful that they did recognize something because it's turned out pretty good for me. KING: All right, let's discuss it from this angle, Dale. If I gave you the hypothetic of great driver in an average car, an average driver in a great car, who would you go with?

EARNHARDT JR.: It depends. That's pretty tough. I'd probably go with the great driver in an average car, more times than not. Over a long period of time, he's going to succeed. You might -- you might -- you know, you might run well here and there with a great race car if you're an average race car driver, but it takes a certain mentality. I think -- I agree with Jeff, in the way that you can -- it can't be taught. Of course, we all learn over a period of time. We're still learning. But it takes a certain mentality, a certain type of personality in someone to become a great race car driver.

KING: How would you describe the difference in your styles, Jeff, you and Dale? What kind of driver are you?

GORDON: I'm probably a little more -- you know, I just try to go out there in each and every race and know when to be aggressive and, you know, when to be patient, you know, try to be smart about things. But I think Dale's a lot like that, as well. I mean, there are times when he's probably a little bit more aggressive. You know, I think there are certain tracks he has a lot of confidence at, and it shows in his driving. His team and himself have come along, you know, quite a bit over the last couple years, and it's why they're battling, you know, for a championship the last couple of years, as well.

But you know, I think what makes a great race car driver is a smart race car driver, somebody that knows how to really think fast and have those instincts. And you know, the guys that are at the top all have it, and Dale's certainly one of those guys.

KING: The new magazine, Dale, "American Thunder" describes you as "Jeff Gordon without the spit polish."


KING: Would you agree with that, Dale?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I mean, I think -- you know, I think Jeff would have to admit that he's a lot more polished than I am. We both come from different backgrounds, and obviously, I've been a little rough around the edges and probably will always be a little rougher around the edges than he is. But I'll have you know, you know, as I'm growing up and potentially looking at opportunity in Winston Cup over the years, maybe four, five years ago, I honed certain parts of my driving style after Jeff Gordon because at that time, he was, you know, dominating the sport. And so, yes, I mean, I think that he showed everybody, a lot of drivers that, you know, a thinking man's type of race car driver can win races, and the guy that knows -- like he said, knows when to be aggressive. So I've kind of honed my skills the same way. I feel like that I'm a little -- I'm real patient, cautious, smart about what I'm doing, know what I'm doing, but know when to turn it up when you got to.

KING: Does it bother you that -- starting with you, Jeff -- that both of you are the subject of tabloids? Your romances, your breakups, your happy times, your good times are known by everyone. You get used to that, Jeff?

GORDON: I don't know if you ever get used to that. You know, I'm fortunate in so many ways. I've been so blessed to get to this level in such a competitive sport and have the notoriety and have all the pluses that come along with it. And I think along the way, there's going to be some negatives, and there's going to be less things that are kept private. And I think I just try to recognize it and understand that, hey, that means our sport is growing. That means my name and face is out there, you know, to people and places that it wasn't before or they wouldn't write about me or Dale or anybody else in this sport. So I think it's a compliment to NASCAR and what they're doing with the sport. But doesn't always put a smile on your face, but you just learn how to let it roll off your back and move on.

KING: Dale, how do you deal with it when a tabloid says "The wild, secret life of Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- babes, Bud and rock-and- roll"?

GORDON: Yes, tell us about that, Dale.


KING: What is with that?

EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I don't know. You know, I just...


KING: Having a good time, huh?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes. I mean, I know how to have a good time. But you know, I've learned from some of the best, too, but you know, it's just...


GORDON: That's not something he learned from me.

EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I don't know. Probably not. But I think that, you know, you got to let some of that stuff roll off the back -- you know, roll off your shoulders and not bother you too bad. I mean, you can't -- I don't get caught up into it too much. I really...


KING: You can't control it.

EARNHARDT JR.: No, you can't control it. And I enjoy reading some of the rumors and stuff that come up sometimes. It's pretty funny.

KING: We'll take a break, come back. We're going to include your phone calls for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Gordon. As we go to break, some of the tough aspects of this tough sport. Watch. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We're back with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Gordon. We're going to include your phone calls for two great stars of the NASCAR circuit.

By the way, quickly, Dale, the president was there to -- "Gentlemen, start your engines." How'd you feel about that? And are you going to endorse anyone in the presidential race?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I don't really get too involved in that. That's really not really something I'm too familiar with. But yes, I was really proud to have the president there. I met him several times even when he was governor of Texas. He came to a couple races. But I like him a lot. He's a pretty cool guy.

KING: Jeff, how did you feel?

GORDON: Oh, I think it was awesome to have him there. You know, if he has to travel like that everywhere he goes, I feel sorry for him. There was quite an entourage, a lot of bulletproof vests. But we're very honored to have him there to kick off our season and our Daytona 500.

KING: Oakville, Ontario, as we go to calls for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Jeff Gordon. Hello.

CALLER: Hi. How are you?

KING: Hi. Go ahead.

CALLER: Thank you, Larry. Thank you for taking my call.

KING: Sure.

CALLER: Dale, congratulations on your win and your second place so far, first...


CALLER: How do you feel about maybe taking a race up in here in Canada?


EARNHARDT JR.: Up in Canada? Yes, that'd be awesome. I think, yes, I'd love to race in Canada. I wish we could go to Mexico. I wish we would race in Europe. I mean, I think that maybe one day, our sport might get to that level. And I think, you know, Jeff would agree that we're headed in that direction. You know, it's just a matter of time. I don't know if I'll still be around to see it, but hopefully.

KING: Jeff, do you think so?

GORDON: You know, I think keeping it, you know, close to the United States, Mexico or Canada, I think would be something that NASCAR would consider. I think they've tried Japan. I think getting over to Europe and too far away gets away from -- from, you know, our fan base. But if the sport continues to grow at the level it's growing, there's no telling where we, you know, might end up racing some day.

KING: Beach Island, South Carolina. Hello.

CALLER: Hi. Larry. Hi, Dale. Hi Jeff. How are you all?

GORDON: I'm good.


CALLER: My question is for Jeff. What do you think about the accusations against Dale, Jr., on his winning ways at Daytona? Because he has an awesome run, and he won that race by himself.

GORDON: He sure did. You know, they do their homework. Dale -- I see a lot of his dad. Everybody used to talk about how Dale, Sr., could see the air, and I think -- I don't know if that was something his dad taught him or if that was just genes, but he certainly knows how to get around Daytona. And you know, every time we're there, we know he's the guy to beat. And DEI (ph) does a great job preparing those race cars. And you know, it's our job to catch up to those guys and create something that we can, you know, get -- finish in front of him in one of these (UNINTELLIGIBLE) races.

KING: Hey, Dale, there's a statement in horse racing called "horses for courses," certain horses like to run at certain tracks. Do you like to drive at certain tracks over other tracks?

EARNHARDT JR.: Well, not really. I used to, you know, have -- favor one over the other, but now it's kind of wherever your car runs good at, you like them all, you know? So we actually had a good season last year, where we ran great at all the race tracks. And I even got to be fans of the road courses we were going to, and I used to be so terrible at them, I'd dread going. But you know, I got other tracks that are pretty -- like, the road courses are probably the funnest, turning left and right and throwing the car around. They might not be the best as far as, like, getting the best finish and being happy about that, but they're funner to drive.

KING: And Jeff, do you have a favorite over others?

GORDON: Well, of course, I love the road courses, as well. We've had a lot of success on them. They are a lot of fun to throw the car around left and right. But you know, I like tracks that have a really wide groove. You can run the bottom, the middle, the top, a track like Atlanta, even Rockingham this weekend. I mean, I think one of the things that makes our sport so great is great racing -- you know, these fast race cars that are loud, with, you know, billboards putting our sponsors, like DuPont, on the side of them. And you know, it's exciting and it's close and it's -- you know, there's crashes, but yet there's, you know, this great competition that -- you know, these guys going wire to wire to try to win. I mean, just like this weekend, it was inches from first to second. And you know, I think that's what the appeal is and why so many people are following the sport.

KING: As we go to break, here's a scene from a new movie featuring both of our guests in Imax. Watch.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once I get buckled in the car, all that you're thinking about's what's about to take place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The pressure, the money, the fame, the teamwork. Racing's everything to me. It's everything I love.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gentlemen, start your engines!



KING: That IMAX movie I mentioned opens March 12 and it is in 3- D. Our guests are Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale is in Mooresville, North Carolina, Jeff's in New York. Now we go to New London, Connecticut. Hello.

CALLER: Hi, everyone. My question is for Dale Jr. Are you going to be having another cruise in December again?

KING: What is that?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, we had a cruise this past offseason, and it was a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun, but, you know, I guess some people didn't have quite as much fun. I didn't know -- I don't know what they expected, but some of us had a real wild time and some of us didn't.

KING: Where did you cruise to?

EARNHARDT JR.: We went around the Bahamas and to Miami and to the Keys. I've never been on a cruise so I didn't know what to expect. I'd tell all my friends to do it at least once. I don't know...

KING: Jeff, did you...

GORDON: What's that, Larry?

KING: Have you ever done a cruise?

GORDON: I have. I've been on a cruise. Not quite like the Dale Jr. cruise.

KING: Wait a minute. Dale, what was -- was this kind of a wild -- Dale, what are we not hearing, learning here?

EARNHARDT JR.: Well, it was just a party cruise really, kind of like a booze cruise. But...

GORDON: Dale Jr. was the main attraction, though.

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I was really the only driver there, and there was like 2,400 fans so it was kind of...

KING: Wow!

EARNHARDT JR.: ...a lot of responsibility for me, and a little more than I could handle anyways is some of fans didn't get what they expected or have a good time but most of them did. We'll probably do something different. We'll keep doing something every offseason for the fans. We'll do something different next time. Tampa, Florida, hello.

CALLER: I have a question for Dale and for Jeff. I wanted to know if you weren't racing cars, what would you be doing for a living?

KING: Jeff?

GORDON: Be in a lot of trouble. You know, I guess because I've dedicated my life to racing, that I really don't know much else. I mean, I possibly would have gone to college when I graduated from high school if racing hadn't worked out, but I mean, I've gotten so many interests now. I mean, I'm involved with the business of racing now, and part owner in a race team and so now my interests, if I wasn't driving, you know, I have a lot of opportunities because of racing, but had I not raced after high school I probably would have just furthered my education and gotten involved with the business my parents were in.

KING: Dale?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I went to a small college and got a degree in automotives and was to be a mechanic at a dealership. So if you had problems with your car I'd have been the guy you'd see. I like working on cars even though I like driving them too, but that would probably be what I would be doing.

KING: Do you like the point system in NASCAR, you like it, Dale, Jeff?

GORDON: There's a new one this year. We're all learning the new way. These first 26 races are pretty much as usual, a little bit of a difference in the winner of the race getting a little bit extra points, but it's going to come down to the last ten races and I don't know if I can evaluate it yet. At first I wasn't real fond of it. I look at the ten races, those are great tracks for us. If we're in the top ten coming into the end of the season, I think we've got a great shot at the championship and I think it will be very exciting for the fans.

KING: Dale, you like it?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I feel the same way. I feel it's going to be real exciting. It's quite different from the past so everyone is adjusting to it and getting used to it. It will be exciting getting down to the finish. There's ten drivers going for the championship those last ten races and I hope I'm one of them.

KING: I know NASCAR's looking for this. How far are we away, Jeff, from some top black drivers?

GORDON: I think diversity is very, very, important and NASCAR is looking into it and doing so much with it right now. I think first we have to make more minorities aware of racing. I mean, minorities don't grow up with race cars at their disposal. There might be a stick and ball or something like that, you know as far as sports go so we've got to first bring this to them and then, you know, you just got to educate them on it and once you get the awareness, you know, they just have to be able to have the talent. I think it's got to start as kids. I grew up racing and we've got to get more minorities growing up racing. It's a long road ahead of them, but we've already seen a huge growth in diversity with crew members and fans and I think, you know, time will only tell but they're certainly focused on it.

KING: Des Moines, Iowa. Hello.

CALLER: Hi, Dale. Congratulations on your Daytona win. We wish we had a track here to watch your race here in Iowa. You and Michael dominated the super speedways and I'm just wondering which one is your favorite, either Talladega or Daytona?

EARNHARDT JR.: I'd' have to say Daytona because of the area itself. It's real close to the beach. Alabama is a great state and I love going down there and deer hunting with my friends at Troy State, and hopefully, you know, it's a toss-up but I like the beach and I like the atmosphere there, the night life, the clubs and everything's a lot of fun to go to, and just a great place.

KING: Why are you shaking your head, Jeff?

GORDON: Oh, Junior just cracks me up, man. You know, we all wish we could be as cool as him.

KING: He is cool. Ohio, hello. Hello, Delaware, Ohio.

CALLER: Yes, Gordon, could you tell me the Delaware score, I'm a big fan of yours and could you beat Junior in the next race?

KING: How old are you?


KING: Ten. All right, Jeff, when do you race again, this weekend?

GORDON: No, we're off this weekend. We're going to go to Vegas and I hope Dale's the guy to beat and I hope I finish ahead of him. I mean, you race against every competitor out there. Dale's been really strong this year, and he showed last year how strong he was. You got to remember there's 41 other guys out there besides the two of us and there's somebody different to beat every weekend. I want to win. That's what I love about racing is that I've felt what it is like to win, and I strive for it every weekend.

KING: You strategize, Dale? Let's say you see certain driver X is one lap in front and this driver's over here, are you aware of who they are and what they like to do?

EARNHARDT JR.: What do you mean, what they like to do?

KING: Do you specifically race against the driver? Do you know that this guy on turns, he likes to do this and therefore, I will do this to counteract that?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I mean, that's what -- that's one of the advantages I feel like I have is I'm really able to see the driver's personality come out in his driving style, his mannerisms at the wheel of the car kind of tell you about what kind of mood he's in and what he's liable to try or do as far as counteract to what you're trying to do as far as pass him or something.

KING: Right.

EARNHARDT JR.: I know what type of driver Jeff Gordon is and I know when I catch him when I'm racing, I know the kind of things he might try to do and how he's going to race me.

KING: Same with you, Jeff?

GORDON: Oh, absolutely. I think that you can take the sponsors, take the numbers off the cars and you know who is behind the wheel just in the way that they drive and their personality and attitude definitely comes out in that race car. And you know, and if you know that about them and you know their strengths and their weaknesses, that's what separates you from the other guys out there. But you are dealing with a machine as well, so how well-tuned and set up that race car is very, very important as well.

KING: We'll be back with more of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, and more of your phone calls. Don't go away.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jeff Gordon in victory lane in the Atlanta Motor Speedway, the 18th time he's won back-to-back racing. Last time he did (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in 2002.


GORDON: I think that we have a lot of the same similarities where we communicate really well. We understand one another very well. We have the utmost respect for one another, but you know, the way Robbie goes about being a crew chief the way Ray went about it are different. You know, just different philosophies, you know, Ray is, you know, a guy that he really gets, you know, kind of the troops gathered up and he's the chief, and you know, Robbie, he's the guy that pats everybody on the back. And just the way things are motivated. But as far as setting the car up and as far as working with me, you know, things are very, very similar. KING: Dale, who is your crew chief?

EARNHARDT JR.: Tony Eury Sr. He's awesome.

KING: You been with him awhile?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, actually, I have, him and my dad grew up together as best friends. They used to cruise the streets of Concord, North Carolina, when they were 17-years-old and married sisters. And so I grew up around him and been around him all my life.

KING: Jeff, what's the single life like in New York City?

GORDON: I'm not...

KING: Not exactly a NASCAR Hubbub?

GORDON: No, I enjoy New York. I think it's a great city. And it certainly has a lot to offer.

KING: I bet.

GORDON: I'm up here visiting some friends. I might be able to tell you what it's like tomorrow or something, when we go to dinner and hang out. But you know, to me, I think what I love about New York is that I'm just able to go get away and enjoy the things that this city has to offer and feel like I can be just an average person just like anybody else walking down the street.

KING: You been there much, Dale?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, I've been in New York a few times myself. I like it. It's all right.

KING: Columbia, South Carolina, hello.

CALLER: Hi, Larry. Hi, Dale. Hi, Jeff. My question is for Dale. First, congratulations on the 500 win. And my husband and I are very big fans. We also very much enjoyed the VH-1 "Driven" special on you. And according to the special, one of your most unique wins, of course, was when you went back to Daytona and won after your fathering passing. Now that you've achieved another milestone in your career with all three wins this weekend in Daytona, do you see yourself doing a similar special about your Daytona wins, since it is NASCAR history?

EARNHARDT JR.: Well, I don't know. You know, we've kind of done all the specials that someone could do in the last several months, and I really enjoyed that "Driven" one. And it was real important to me that I got that done. I had seen one done on Tim McGraw and thought it was the greatest thing ever. So, I wanted to have one done and they were great about it and did a good job with it. But, yes. I'd think, I going to have to say still that Daytona 500 victory is always going to be real special to me.

KING: Jeff, any big difference when you switch from Winston to Nextel?

GORDON: I mean, I think we're very excited about it. I think, you know, all of the changes that have come along in this sport, I think I have kind of been driven by the changeover and going to Nextel. I mean, Winston did such a great job getting our support to this level, but to take it to the next level we needed somebody like Nextel to come in. They're not limited in what they're able to do marketing wise, advertising wise and got a great product and I think they're going to really take our sport to a whole new level. We're very excited.

KING: And image wise you're better off not being sponsored by a cigarette company in this day and age, right.

GORDON: Yes, I think if you look at the future of advertising, I think it's definitely the way to go.

KING: We'll be back with our remaining moments with two of the greatest, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Don't go away.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The season sweep at Martinsville for Jeff Gordon, as he wins the Subway 500 by one second over his teammate, Jimmy Johnson.

Jeff Gordon on the front stretch after sweeps both wins at the same track for the fourth time in his Winston Cup career. And it's another season of double digit wins for Jeff Gordon.



KING: You wouldn't know it by our highlights, but occasionally other drivers do win. Joplin, Missouri, for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Hello.

CALLER: Hi, Larry.

KING: Hi, speak up.

CALLER: Hi, Dale. Hi, Jeff. How are you?

GORDON: Good, how are you?

EARNHARDT JR.: Just fine.

CALLER: I'm calling from Joplin, Missouri. And my question is for Dale. And Dale, first of all I want to congratulate you on your win. The Daytona 500 is a very special race. Want to let you know that my husband and I will be at the Kansas Motor Speedway on your birthday. Hopefully you'll have a victory that day as well.

My question is, I want to know what your thoughts are on all of the talented rookies out there. One, of course, Jamie McMurray, which is from Joplin, Missouri. How do you feel racing with them and...?

KING: How are they doing, Dale?

EARNHARDT JR.: Oh, I think the rookies are awesome. It's really amazing to me how young they're coming into the sport now. And I mean, Jamie has been great. He's a great person, real kind of uplifting, funny guy to be around, really always got a lot of energy and he's cool to be around. I really like talking to him. And you got a lot of the guys coming in like Jamie. I mean, Jamie has already -- seems like Jamie has been here forever already, because these other guys that have come in at 20 and 21 years old and just really phenomenal, phenomenal talent right now.

KING: Lagrange, Georgia, hello.

CALLER: Hi, Larry, Jr., Jeff. I have a question or Dale and for Jeff also.

KING: Go ahead.

CALLER: Junior, do you think any time maybe in the near future that you may get behind the wheel in maybe that Goodwrench number three and ride at least one race? And also...

EARNHARDT JR.: I don't ...

CALLER: ... and if you guys -- if you guys...

KING: Hold on, you didn't understand it, Dale?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I understood it. Yeah, I think -- I think driving that number is something that I'd love to do, I'd love to get behind the number three car and maybe be in the driver's seat, but it's something I'll do later in my career, if ever. You know, I think, you know, it's just right now I have got to concentrate on Budweiser number eight and winning championships.

KING: What's your question for Jeff?

CALLER: And I also, I was wondering if you guys could say hello to Laurie and Lilly for me? That's my wife and my daughter. We're big fans.

KING: Go ahead, Jeff, say hi to Laurie and Lilly.

GORDON: Hi, Laurie. Hi, Lilly.

KING: One thing about NASCAR, they're closer to the fans than any other sport. Marshfield, Wisconsin, hello.

CALLER: Hi, Jeff. Hi, Dale. Hi, Larry.


CALLER: It's an honor to even be speaking with you on the phone. My question for you is, besides yourself, a teammate or a full time employee, who is your favorite driver?

KING: Good question. Dale?

EARNHARDT JR.: Boy, that's tough. Bobby Labonte or Dale Jarrett.

GORDON: For me, I mean, I've become good friends with my teammate Jimmy Johnson and Brian Vickers. You know, it's hard to make friends with your competitors. You got to go out there and race against them every weekend, but we travel together so we spend a lot of time together and there's a lot of cool guys out there.

KING: Dale, I understand you have the Daytona 500 trophy with you?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yes, it's sitting right here.

KING: Can we see it?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I think we can. Let me get the cameraman here to work. Does that look good?

KING: Let's close in on it a little.

EARNHARDT JR.: What do you think, what do you think, Jeff, does that look good?

GORDON: Yeah, when you get another one, you know, you can come over and we can put all four of them up there.

EARNHARDT JR.: We'll compare them. I'll work on it.

KING: Are the cars safer, Jeff?

GORDON: Absolutely. The driver compartment's safer. We actually implemented a carbon fiber seat into the Motorsport's 24 Dupont Chevrolet, and I feel safer than I've ever felt before. The belts are safer. You know, we're still, we still have a ways to go. I mean, the safer wall barriers. I think they're great. We need to see more of them at more tracks, and we need to see some impact material surrounding the cars, especially that driver's side door, passenger side door, that's when you take an impact in that area in the right front corner, that's when the driver, you know, feels it the most, and we will get injuries. So there's certainly ways to go, but we've come a long way in a short period of time and I'm excited about where the future is in safety.

KING: Dale, at what age do you start to think about quitting the sport? How long do they ride?

EARNHARDT JR.: Wow, I don't know. I think one thing I can tell you for sure is that the average, you know, career span for a race car driver is going to shorten up tremendously I think over the next 10 to 15 years. At the level of commitments and things that we're going through, the things that we are involved in on and off the track, I think it's going to take its toll on these young guys, especially coming into the sport at this age, at 20 and 21 years old. I think they're going to feel it a little more harder than, say, Jeff or I did.

So myself, I'd love to race as long as I can, and I probably will. I'll probably race until at least I'm 40, 45 years old.

KING: And Jeff, we only have about 20 seconds. How long do you want to race?

GORDON: I want to race as long as I'm having fun, it's competitive and healthy, and who knows when that, you know, date comes when that's not happening anymore.

KING: Continued good luck to both of you. And thanks for a wonderful hour, guys.

GORDON: Yeah, enjoyed it. Thanks, Larry.

EARNHARDT JR.: Appreciate it.

KING: Thank you. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the winner of the 2004 Daytona 500 and Jeff Gordon, who won that auspicious race in '97 and again in '99. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, an hour of NASCAR. I'll be back to tell you about tomorrow night. Don't go away.


KING: Tomorrow night, we'll look into that extraordinary story of the missing family of three in Mississippi. They remain missing.

Aaron Brown is also missing tonight, taking the night off. Sitting in is Judy Woodruff. She'll host "NEWSNIGHT."



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