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Interview With Four NASCAR Legends

Aired August 15, 2005 - 21:00   ET


BOB COSTAS, GUEST HOST: And welcome to LARRY KING LIVE. I'm Bob Costas, sitting in in New York. Larry is sitting out this entire week. I'll be filling in for him. And tomorrow night, Conan O'Brien. Tonight, as you just saw, a quartet from the world of NASCAR, young Kasey Kahne will join us a bit later.
But to begin the program tonight, Jeff Gordon, the most successful active driver in NASCAR, 72 career wins, four-time NASCAR champion. Rusty Wallace in the middle of this group of three, turned 49 yesterday, says this is his last year on the circuit, going out with a bang, ranking fourth right now in the Nextel Cup standings and Kyle Petty, third generation NASCAR competitor. His grandfather, Lee, is generally thought to be the founder of NASCAR, at least the founding competitor when it comes to the sport. And his father, of course, is "The King," Richard Petty, the all-time leader in career victories.

Well, yesterday at Watkins Glen Tony Stewart won for the third straight time, he's one five out of seven. Is he the man?

JEFF GORDON, NASCAR DRIVER: Definitely, right now, he's definitely the man. The chase hasn't begun. So a lot can change once we get in those last ten races. But right now, they are on top of their game. He has won, what, five of the last six races or something. Can't be stopped right now.

RUSTY WALLACE, NASCAR DRIVER: They've got a lot of rhythm going on right now. They've been doing a lot of testing. And Tony's on top of his game. He's doing great and you can't fault him. We're all competitors and we all want to beat him, but week in, week out, the car has been handling good and they've been making smart decisions.

KYLE PETTY, NASCAR DRIVER: It's like any sport. Jimmie was the guy at the first of the year, then it went to Greg Biffle. Now it's Tony Stewart. That's how competitive NASCAR Nextel Cup racings. It depends on who peaks in the last 10 races. That's going to be the show.

COSTAS: So, there are ten races to go and these things could change. Right now, Jeff, you're on the bubble?


COSTAS: So is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. This is hard to believe, for people who follow the sport. GORDON: Not hard to believe if you're within the sport. It's very competitive. We've had some tough luck and it's put us outside the top ten in points. We were second or third in points at one time. Elliott saddler is another one way up there in points not long ago and now he's outside the top ten.

Junior has had a tough start to the season. So anything is possible. There are no guarantees in this sport of who's going to be up there, no matter what your name, no matter what your statistics are in the past. It's all about what you do week in and week out over a consistent basis for 26 races and then get yourself in the chase is what you do over those last 10.

COSTAS: To all three of you, and I know you've all heard this question before. You're obviously very skilled at what you do. Some people will still pose the question. Are you athletes? Are you an athlete, Kyle?

PETTY: I think so. I think, definitely so. When you look at, you know, especially the younger guys that have come in, even guys like myself, run a marathon earlier in the year with Michael Waltrip. You train. You're constantly training. Obviously, when you get to be 45, 47, 48, like Rusty and I, you've got to do some physical activity away from the race car to say competitive with Kasey Kahne or a Casey Mears, some of these young guys coming in.

But to sit in a car at 120, 130 degrees or hotter for three or four hours at a time, we really don't have time-outs like you have in other sports. It's like any sport. There some level of physical activity and a level of mental activity, no had an matter what you're in. And if you take and break down other athletes, stick and ball sports, whether it be wrestling, swimming, no matter what it is, all those things come into being, whether it's the physical, whether it's the mental, whether it's the training. And I think we're as much athletes as any other sports.

COSTAS: There's a southern boy, wrasslin'. We're talking about some wrasslin'.

WALLACE: When it's 170 degrees inside those cars and you have got to pump cool air in your helmet to keep going for 500 miles, it's a pretty tough job out there. We'll run four to five hours in those races, lose anywhere between five-- the most I ever lost in my life was 11 pounds in the Southern 500 about seven years ago. Jeff, you know how hot it gets down there.

GORDON: I'll put any athlete in the best shape and put them in that car yesterday. A road course race in hot temperature sincere a very demanding race. It will take two days to recover from it. There are days that it's not physically demanding, but those days are usually more mentally -- you know, more mental races more than anything else.

COSTAS: A few years ago, I think it was in Martinsville, your power steering went out. And for some three hours, you kept control of the car, but afterwards you couldn't lift your arms, right? GORDON: It was about halfway through the race. Honestly, I still look back on it and I think if it hadn't have been in Martinsville, we would have been in trouble. Because Martinsville is one of those tracks where you can take two arms and crank on the wheel in the middle of the corner and get away with it there. It's a flat track. But, you know, guys used to run without power steering years ago and get away with these guys can probably tell you stories about going without power steering back in the day.

WALLACE: I tell you, nowadays it's not really how strong you are, but how much you know about the racetrack. The tracks changed a lot. It's about understanding your car, the set ups. It's not how fast we can run the 50 yard dash, or how strong you are or how much weight we can lift. It's understanding that car, being related today your crew and those types of things

COSTAS: How much of the ultimate success in competition is car, how much is driver, how much is crew?

WALLACE: Go ahead and answer that one.

GORDON: Yeah. If anyone can answer that, we're the drivers. Of course, we're sitting over here going, man, it's all the driver.

PETTY: All driver. No.

GORDON: I don't know. I think it depends on the racetrack. Some racetracks, it takes more car than it does driver. Say Daytona, Talladega, when you go to qualify on the super speedways it's all about the car and the team. Then there's -- I mean, there's moments when -- and I think Tony Stewart is a perfect example of this right now. They've got the best overall combination of car, team and driver. And Tony is a great driver, but he's got a great car and his team is doing a great job of the pit strategy and what takes to prepare that car as well.

PETTY: I think it's a team sport. We are a part of the team, just as a quarterback is a part of a time or lineman is part of a team. The guy that sweeps the floor at the shop to the guy that assembles the gear and never goes to the racetrack is just as important in making Jeff Gordon successful or Rusty Wallace successful, or Kyle Petty, whoever, it's a team sport all the way through.

The drivers take a lot of the credit and get a lot of credit, but they take a lot of the blame too.

COSTAS: And a lot of the risk.

PETTY: And a lot of the risk. And they take a lot of the blame when things don't -- But just like Jeff said, from pit strategy to which car to bring to the racetrack to tire selection, from air pressure and stuff like that, drivers have input, but there's a lot of people who have input as to what goes on

COSTAS: Very quickly, before a break, 43 cars in every race, let's say the least accomplished driver out of those 43 had the best car and the best crew. Would he win?

GORDON: Probably not.

PETTY: Probably not. I would give him maybe a top ten. Depends how much experience the driver has.

COSTAS: And what could a very good driver do with a middling crew and middling car?

PETTY: About the same thing.

That's why I say it's a team sport. You have to have a great crew like Jeff or Tony has right now or Rusty has had. You put together a good combination of a crew chief, car chief, A great staff of engineers and great motor program. You put them together, you put a great driver in there, you're going to have a great team. That's where these teams rise to the top. That's why when you go back to the chase and Jeff's on the outside looking in right now, but gaining momentum. Junior on the outside, looking in. It's not that these guys have faltered so much. It's that these other teams have just been so competitive. The parity in our sport is so competitive.

WALLACE: And there's no I on a race team. I could be leading a race. If I come in for a pit spot and these guys mess up, I lose. If the engine blows, I lose. If I crash the wall, we're doing everything right, we lose. So it's a whole team effort. I learned a long time ago you never say I or me when it comes to racing in the car, because you can get yourself into trouble big time doing that one.

COSTAS: Superstars of NASCAR are with us. Kasey Kahne before the hour is out. We'll also take your phone calls in the second half hour.

Bob Costas for Larry King all this week from New York and we're back after this.


COSTAS: Some snippets of some hair-raising portions of NASCAR action as we're rejoined by Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace and Kyle Petty. In most other sports, fear is part of it but it's incidental. And the fear is, except in the most extraordinary case, the fear is of injury. Here, the fear is the possibility of death. It's touched the sport. Kyle, it's touched your family personally. How much is it with you? Every time you get behind the wheel of a car?

GORDON: I think it's definitely on our minds, but, you know, we focus a lot on safety. I think over the last few years, we've made some big strides in safety with the Hans device, some of the supports that we're using on the seats, the safer wall barriers. But I think as competitors, we're out there to win. We're out there to get the best finish that we possibly can. And, you know, we depend a lot on our team to make sure that we're doing everything safety wise and NASCAR and the tracks are doing everything safety wise.

COSTAS: As you're talking, I think that's the pile-up at Talladega. You were in that, weren't you, Rusty?

WALLACE: Yes, I sure was. I was in that wreck. And that was a heck of a wreck. Talking about your question there, I remember going to Daytona in '93, having a big wreck and turning it over. And four races later, I go to Talladega and turn over again. I got a little sideways at Daytona, I got upside down, the air caught it and flipped the car. I went to Talladega and did it again. At that point, that's when I start getting a little concerned.

It's like, man, when I get sideways, these things are turning over. That's when NASCAR came out and created the roof flaps. When the roof flaps came out it kept the cars on the ground. But there's so many safety innovations out here, it's been unreal. Just like Jeff said, the Hans device and the soft walls, the roof flaps, the shoulder harnesses we wear. The sport has gotten a lot, lot safer. We've learned that from bad tragedies

COSTAS: Four and a half years ago, Dale Earnhardt lost his life at Daytona. You were quoted as saying that had a personal effect on you, more than you would have thought at the time.

WALLACE: Yeah, it did. I thought about it. I think the thing that stuck in my mind is that we were on the boat that night at Daytona talking and he said man, I'm going to do this for a couple more years. He had so much going for him and he didn't get to enjoy it. It's not the reason I'm retiring from racing. I've got so much I've done and so many things you've done. I really do enjoy this. And I'm not quitting because I'm scared at all, but I've been around for a long time and I do want to enjoy those nice things that he didn't get to enjoy

COSTAS: Kyle, as we mentioned, your grandfather, Lee, your father, Richard Petty "the King," yourself and Adam would have made it a fourth generation as a NASCAR competitor but at the age of 19, five years ago, he was killed practicing for a race. How are you able to get back on the track? How have you rationalized, if that's the word?

PETTY: I think race car drivers are strange and you rationalize things in different ways. I think NASCAR has been incredibly proactive in recent years. Over the last five or six years since Adam's accident and Dale Sr.'s accident, Kenny Irwin's accident, NASCAR has taken a leading stance from soft walls to carbon fiber seats. They're constantly in their tech center trying to move the ball forward on safety.

From my perspective, just like you said a minute ago, I'm from the South. I grew up in a neighborhood and in a community where people farmed, raised tobacco, had dairy farms. There were fifth and sixth generation farmers. And just because an accident or tragedy happened on the farm, you didn't stop farming. That was the way you did things. That was your way of life. I know that sounds incredibly simplistic, but my grandfather started racing in the late '40s. Came along, had a horrendous crash in the early '60s at Daytona, but survived, but after that he didn't see fit to drive anymore. My father started, I raced for some 20 years. We've been in accidents and had things happen but never really thought about it happening to us until Adam's accident at New Hampshire. Obviously there you refocus, think about what happened and where you were at. But at the same time, this is what we do. And I don't know if that's a great commentary or sad commentary on what we do in life but like Jeff said a minute ago, we're competitors. You don't think about that side of the coin. You always think I'm going to win. I'm going to be better. I'm going to come out of this and out of Adam's tragedy, we built a camp in North Carolina, the Victory Junction Gang Camp for chronically ill children and children with life threatening diseases.

So out of something bad, we feel like the NASCAR community and these guys sitting here and the fans out there have built something better, but it's still something that's always with you.

COSTAS: And you and your wife partnered with Paul Newman, who is active with racing, to support the camp.

PETTY: It's been phenomenal. We've been very blessed. Rusty's last call this year with Miller, he sold his uniforms and donated money to camp. Jeff Gordon has a cabin at camp that his foundation sponsored. Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett were some of the founding members. Tony Stewart has been phenomenal with camp and it's easy to really go through the list and say who has done it but the fans have really built it. But Paul was instrumental. We went to a camp in Florida called Boggy Creek and decided that this was something we wanted to do, start the Victory Junction Gang Camp. It's been a great place. We have the Chik-Fil-A charity ride that helps donate money to it. So there is a couple of different charities that kind of keep that up and running. This is our second summer. It's been a great summer.

COSTAS: Jeff, one last thing before we take a break here. Until Kasey Kahne joins the panel, you're the junior member here. These guys are in their 40s, Rusty 49 yesterday says he's getting out after this year. I hear talk by the time you're 40, and that's still, what, six, seven years from now, you'll be done? There's too much money outside the track? You started young, you had success young. You won't be in it as long as these guys have been.

GORDON: Well I think financially, people are in a position to be able to step away from it at a younger age. But is that what motivates guys to stop racing? I think some guys just love it and want to be behind the wheel of a race car for a long time. I will say that the schedule now is really grueling.

COSTAS: Season's really long?

GORDON: It's very long, not to mention all the things we have to do behind the scenes for our sponsors. It takes you out on the road for a very long time. So I do think that the drivers are going to start retiring at younger ages, over time. I just have always said as long as I'm healthy, competitive and enjoying what I'm doing, I want to be out there behind the wheel of a race car

COSTAS: Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Kyle Petty. Kasey Kahne shortly as we continue from New York after this.



GORDON: We have fanatical fans that are crazy about their driver and that's a good thing.


COSTAS: And we now add a fourth superstar of NASCAR, 2004 Rookie of the Year, Kasey Kahne. And more important than winning the Rookie of the Year title, that same year, "People Magazine" comes out with a list of the 50 most eligible bachelors in America and there you are.

KASEY KAHNE, NASCAR DRIVER: Yeah. That was a surprise to me, for sure. I was really happy to be in NASCAR, really happy to win the Rookie of the Year and everything and then the "People" magazine. That was a complete surprise. If you noticed, I wasn't in it this year.

COSTAS: Does that mean you've gotten married in the interim?

KAHNE: No, I haven't gotten married, but I didn't make the list

COSTAS: Was that a disappointment to you?

KAHNE: No, it wasn't a disappointment. It was just fun.

COSTAS: Being on just once, has that enhanced your social standing?

KAHNE: It -- no.

COSTAS: Had no effect?

KAHNE: There was talk about it

COSTAS: Nothing?

KAHNE: I saw pictures of it. I saw it a lot of it at the racetracks. But it didn't really change much.

COSTAS: The surveys tell us that about 40 percent, maybe more, of those who call themselves avid NASCAR fans are women. Does our quartet of men have any theory as to why that is?

PETTY: I don't know why. When you look at the cars, sponsor of the car, Coca-Cola, a lot of the companies like that, they're consumer products that are consumer products that are sold in grocery stores nationwide. Obviously, women do the majority of the shopping when you look at statistics on that. So, they're really marketing to a lot more of the female audience now. But I think we've always had a pretty large contingent of female fans. They've been younger fans pulling for people like Kasey, but now we have fans that are mothers that have children that come along. COSTAS: Are there NASCAR moms now, like soccer moms?

PETTY: It's not strange. It's pretty common to see a family and see the father pull your Rusty and the mother pull for Jeff and then the daughter pull for Kasey and the son pull for somebody else and they're all part of the same family. I just think it's more of a family sport, I think. But yes, the women have been here.

COSTAS: Why is it that NASCAR has surged so much nationwide, outside of its base in the South over the last decade? Indy Car racing, Formula 1, at least in the United States, interest in the United States has waned and NASCAR has surged. Why is that?

WALLACE: We've got a ton of media courage coverage now. We have more media coverage than we ever had. The sport is incredibly popular. Instead of two teams, there's 43 teams. And all 43 of those teams have all different sponsors and different people helping to promote their team. So there's an awful lot of money being spent on all these cars, awful lot of excitement going on. I don't understand why there shouldn't be 50 percent of the women pulling for NASCAR. There might be, because the sport is just incredibly exciting.

GORDON: I think it's a combination of like what Rusty said, marketing with what NASCAR has done, what the sponsors have done and also new racetracks in areas around the country where -- Las Vegas, Texas, Southern California, Indianapolis. You know, those types of tracks have attracted a lot more fans. And there are some places we can't get to. If we could, we could attract more fans.

PETTY: I do believe the surge, in my opinion, has really been -- it's a southeastern sport. As the economy and the United States grew and people move from Georgia to Spokane, Washington, for a job, they took their culture and they took what they liked with them.

Who would have ever believed the Stanley Cup would have ever been in Texas? Go back 30 or 40 years ago and ask if there would be a hockey team that could win the cup from Colorado.

COSTAS: Or from Tampa.

PETTY: It would have been -- it's a northeastern sport. We were a southeastern sport, but as the demographics of the United States changed, it took it. And as our sponsors, like the Coca-Colas and the Dodges and people like that, as they go out and promote the sport, they promote it everywhere.

COSTAS: There may be a rough analogy here between NASCAR and country music. As country music surged over the decade, there were some old line people who said, wait a minute, it's losing its soul, going in the direction of pop. It doesn't have the purity that it once has. Is there a danger that NASCAR, in trying to broaden the demographics and reaching out, will lose its soul, its distinctive traits in some way.

GORDON: I definitely think that that's the downside of fast growth and the growth that we've gotten to. I mean, the sport is obviously thriving, it's doing very well, even when the economy was down, the sport was still thriving and new fans were coming, but, you know, at the same time, it's definitely a fear that it could get too big too fast or, you know, that we can lose sight of the core fan that's really there. So, it's a potential.

But I think that right now, it has a great balance. I mean, I really feel like everybody is really involved with trying to make the sport bigger and better. The competitors, you know, the marketing people with the sponsors, the sponsors themselves, NASCAR. I think everybody is working very well together. But if that ever starts to spread apart, there's definitely fear that it can get away from us.

WALLACE: I will tell I think, you right now, personally, this sport is spiraling upward in control. I really think that. I've been saying that for a long time. It hasn't stopped yet. It's been incredible what these guys have done. Almost every single sponsor, Bob, that's been involved in this sport has seen huge, huge rewards. If they screw up their marketing they can mess up, like anybody can. But these guys have good marketing companies doing it right. All reaping big rewards by being involved in NASCAR.

PETTY: I'll give you a Richard Petty answer on that.

COSTAS: Real quick, got to take a break.

PETTY: On the core fan, there was only 15,000, 20,000 of them that come to Charlotte. Now there's 200,000. So those 180, they're new fans and 15 or 20 may be just enchanted with the sport right now, but 180,000 brand new fans that come to sport.

COSTAS: Kyle Petty, Rusty Wallace, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon. Back with more from New York after this.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tear (ph) down the wall the next time you're anywhere near me. (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did you do? What did you just do?



COSTAS: Gentlemen, can't we all get along?

GORDON: Those beeps weren't from me. My back was to the camera and those bleeps were for somebody else.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not true, Gordon. Don't give us that now. COSTAS: You know, sometimes people who follow NASCAR closely say, you know what? I get confused. I think I'm watching the WWE. What's up with this stuff?

WALLACE: They're all wanting their money man. They're all going for it, you know, and it's like you bump them out of the way, they get mad. But I'll tell you, usually by Tuesday, it all passes. They're kind of OK, then with the whole thing starts again the following weekend.

COSTAS: Any grudges still out there? You and Tony Stewart had it in for each other for awhile, right?

GORDON: You know what? You know, I've had run-ins with a bunch of guys out there. But it's like Rusty said. We race these guys week in and week out. We're trying to win a championship. And if you have a grudge with a guy that lasts for very long, all it's going to do is cost you points and positions on the racetrack and tear up a lot of equipment that your team's going to have to fix. So, you know, the best thing is to get it out, you know, in the open, talk about it, get it out of the way and move on.

COSTAS: Is there a concern, though, beyond just intense competition? Kasey, is there a concern that sometimes some competitors cross the line and endanger fellow competitors? It's a dangerous enough sport as it is under the best of circumstances. Are there guys out there putting other competitors at risk unnecessarily?

KAHNE: I think it can happen, but doesn't seem to happen too often. I think a lot of the times that things do happen it's not always -- sometimes they look more intentional than they are and sometimes they are intentional, but, you know, like they were saying, you know, usually Monday you're still a little upset and by Tuesday, you try to put it behind you and just go on with the next weekend because you have to.

COSTAS: What's the biggest difference between the average NASCAR fan and the average baseball, football, basketball fan?

PETTY: I think the average NASCAR -- or the average baseball, football, basketball fan has one team and pull for one team. You take an average NASCAR fan, he may be a diehard Jeff Gordon fan, but his second favorite driver is Kasey Kahne. And if something happens to Jeff he picks up for Kasey, and he floors (ph) for Kasey.

They are the most loyal group of fans you've ever run across in your life. It's been interesting for me, coming from a family who has been in the sport so long. I run across people and it's amazing to see my father with a picture taken with an 8-year-old boy and the guy will say, that was me, when I was 8 years old. I would like my son to have his photo taken with you.

So it's a generational thing to. These people have been Rusty fans or whatever, and they will continue to be Rusty fans, because Stephen, his son, is coming along and they'll be Wallace fans for generations down the road. And I think that's what has made NASCAR such a great sport is the fans they pull from generation to generation. And, yes, they may go to different drivers but -- and they have one favorite driver, but have multiple drivers

COSTAS: Your family kind of fits the mythology of NASCAR, coming from the south, and the kind of bootstrap idea and if it didn't work out at the track, then maybe the next job is at the textile mill or something like that, and good ol' boys and that whole thing.

Jeff, you and Kasey represent an influx -- not that it never happened before, but there are more and more drivers who don't come from that background. You're California by way of Indiana and there was some resentment, especially toward you, because you were successful so young and beat Dale Earnhardt at one point ...

GORDON: Right.

COSTAS: ... that you -- not only are you a brash young guy, but you don't fit the mold at all.

GORDON: No, not at all. Especially, you know, when I came along, you know, that definitely wasn't the case. You didn't see a lot of guys coming from California or coming through the open-wheel ranks. There were a few guys like Kenny Schrader. But, you know, I came along and had success fairly quickly.

And there definitely was some resentment, but at the same time, I picked up a lot of fans. There were a lot of new fans coming into the sport that, you know, I was able to gain and, you know, continue on, but yet guys like Kasey here, he doesn't get to see all the boos and things because, you know, he's an open-wheel racer.

COSTAS: You're catching the flack for him?

GORDON: Yes, I've paved the way, I hope, for these young guys that, you know, might not be from the southeast or come from a stock car background

COSTAS: Look at him. He's just minding his Ps and Qs, rookie of the year, one of America's most eligible bachelors, but he is just deferring to his elders. Look at him. He's like a choir boy there, isn't he?

GORDON: Don't let him fool you. Come on. The quiet before the storm.

KAHNE: I was a huge Jeff Gordon fan when I was coming up through. I was racing the -- well, actually, I wasn't even racing yet, but Jeff was still in midgets and sprint cars. And I mean, I was a huge Jeff Gordon fan before he got to NASCAR and the same with Rusty and Kyle. I mean, that's all I did was watch, because I'm from Washington and just that's how I learned.

COSTAS: Washington state?

KAHNE: Yes, Washington state.

COSTAS: That's got to make you feel old, Jeff. What Kasey said ...

GORDON: Hey, you turned 49, I turned 34, you know, a couple of weeks ago and he's saying he watched me when I got into NASCAR.

COSTAS: For those who may not know, it's a fascinating story that the roots of NASCAR go back to the days of moonshine liquor.


COSTAS: You would be the one who knows the story best, given your background so ...

PETTY: And that's -- my grandfather was in the trucking business and beverage transportation sometimes

COSTAS: Yes, of course.

PETTY: And he was in that business. And that's where they started. They started suping up cars, obviously, or making hot rods out of cars to really run liquor and outrun the revenues. And that's a fact of life. You can't rewrite the history of the South.

COSTAS: To outrun the government agents.

PETTY: To outrun the government agents and local law enforcements. And that's where the sport came from. And that's why predominantly it was a southeastern sport, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, down into Florida and stuff. And to think that the sport came from those roots to where it's at now, and here we are, sitting here talking to Bob Costas on LARRY KING LIVE. That's a long, way in a very short period of time and I think it shows the potential that NASCAR and the growth that NASCAR has.

COSTAS: Superstars of NASCAR on LARRY KING LIVE tonight from New York. And we'll take your phone calls from around the nation when we continue.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kasey Kahne is a winner at last.



COSTAS: Topic, obviously, is NASCAR. Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Rusty Wallace and Kyle Petty are with us. And now we arrive at the quintessential LARRY KING LIVE moment. Whether or not you have the suspenders, whether or not you have the glasses, whether or not the sleeves are rolled up, you know you're sitting in for Larry King when you say, Cincinnati, Ohio, hello.

CALLER: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

COSTAS: How are you tonight?

CALLER: I'm great. It's a pleasure to talk to you.

My question is, once the race for the chase is set, and you happen not to be in that chase, what is your incentive to keep driving and giving it your best every week?

COSTAS: If you're not in the chase for the cup, what's your incentive to go out there and do your best?

PETTY: You know, we're sitting here with two drivers who have a real shot at being in the chase, with Jeff and with Rusty...

COSTAS: Yeah, Rusty's fourth right now.


PETTY: Never mind. Get up and leave now. OK, so Rusty's in. But I think Kasey and myself are out. But your incentive is still to win races. You have got to win races for your sponsor. You want to win races for your fans. You want to win races.

At the same time, you get to that 11th spot, and there's a lot of incentive there from Nextel Cup and from their bonus program and stuff. But by no chance do the guys that are outside the top 10 in the Nextel Cup chase just lay down and say, OK, we're going to get out of the way of the top 10 drivers.

Ask these guys that were in the top 10 last year. They struggled really, really hard to be competitive and win races, and we take points away even when you're not in the top 10. You take points away from guys that are out there.

So it's still the same old racing. There's only 10 guys with a shot at the championship, but it's the same tough race.

KAHNE: One thing that I saw, you know, last year, Greg Biffle was not up in the points, and they turned it on the last five, six, maybe eight races, and came out at the start of this season just as strong. So that's something I look at as, you know, yeah, we're behind right now, but to turn it on at very end of the year, you know, try to win races, get up front, and just, you know, get ready for the following season.

COSTAS: Rusty, you've got a great chance to go out in style.

WALLACE: Well, I really do. I mean, talking about turning it on, I'm turning it on right now, because there's no more to turn on after the race in Holmstead. This is my final year racing, and I'll tell you what, I went for 17 straight years never out of the top 10. I had two years in a row that were really bad for me, and I didn't finish that well. But this year, I feel like we're back on track, we're fourth in the points, and only I think six or eight points out of third or something like that, but good in the points. But I want to win real, real bad.

And the caller that just called in, you know, the incentive is to win. If you can't be in the points, you want to win. That's your main goal.

COSTAS: Jeff, a lot of people would say with you pretty much on the bubble, this is a little bit like Tiger Woods just trying to make the cut. But we saw what happened this weekend in the PGA, when he barely made the cut, and then he darn near won the tournament.

GORDON: Well, I'm going to use that as my incentive. I was watching Tiger over the weekend. And I thought he was out of it, and then I saw yesterday where he finished fourth. So that's pretty incredible.

And that's our goal. You know, our goal is -- we've got to really step it up over these next four weeks, but we also know that if we get into that chase, we basically start at zero. We've got a legitimate shot at the championship. And if we don't, like these guys said, we start working on next year and trying to win.

COSTAS: Back now to the phones. Merrill, Wisconsin, you're up next. Hello.

CALLER: Hi, Bob.


CALLER: Hi, NASCAR drivers. Hey, I had a question for Rusty Wallace. I was wondering what one of his most memorable moments were? And probably (INAUDIBLE) one of his worst moment?

COSTAS: Best and worst?

WALLACE: Best and worst. My best moment definitely when I won the championship in '89. That was the highlight of my career. I was really excited to do that. It was just a great, great time.

I guess also when I won my very first race in 1986 at Bristol, Tennessee, that was a great day.

Worst? I think the worst of my career was when we lost Dale Earnhardt at Daytona. That affected me for a long time and still does.

COSTAS: On a lighter note, much lighter note than that, didn't you have a victory lap in Springfield, Missouri, you're waving to the crowd, you've won the race, and then what happens?

WALLACE: Only a Missouri guy would know that, man, and that's where you're from. So no -- it was one of my first wins. And I was so excited about winning the race, that -- I was driving around the racetrack -- and back then, you carried the checkered flag when you've won. So I'm carrying the checkered flag, going down the straightaway, and I'm waving at the crowd. And so I'm looking at the crowd, I am carrying the flag, and I'm driving the car with my knee. And when I looked up, I hit the wall head on and destroyed the car.

That wasn't real smart, because they had to work all night long to fix that thing to get it ready to go to Ft. Smith, Arkansas the next day. So one of my most embarrassing moments, for sure.

COSTAS: Rusty Wallace, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Petty. And we'll continue. More from New York after this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Racing at these speeds is unbelievably dangerous.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Newman slams the wall, and Newman is...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When I hit the wall, I hit it wide open, maybe 100, maybe 108 miles an hour. Then I felt the back of the car get really light and come up. And (INAUDIBLE) actually dragging across the grass in the infield, and I thought, I am safe. I did not realize that a tire had come off the wheel. So once (INAUDIBLE), when it came down, tumbled about six times there, and I was just -- it was a situation where you just got to hang on.



COSTAS: Bob Costas in this week from New York for Larry King, who is vacationing for the next several days. Guys, I was talking today with Jeff McGregor of "Sports Illustrated" who wrote a very interesting book about NASCAR called "Sunday Money."

And one of the points he made to me was the day Dale Earnhardt died was the day much of America really became aware of the deep hole that NASCAR has on another portion of America, because here was a guy who was like another number three, Babe Ruth, to a certain portion of America. Then there were other Americans who said to themselves, gee, I'm sorry that he was killed, but I had no idea that he had this much meaning to so many people. Is Jeff right about that?

GORDON: Oh, I think he is. I mean, I think that, you know, Dale Earnhardt's popularity and what he meant to the sport goes far beyond what a lot of us ever recognized, you know, until his death. I mean, I know that I recognized how popular he was, but I had no idea how many people he had actually touched throughout all the years, whether it be through people that they knew that watched the sport or, you know, watching it themselves.

It was unbelievable just how big Dale Earnhardt was to the sport and how big he helped -- you know, like Richard Petty, you know, the king -- I mean, those two guys did more for the sport than anybody ever has.

COSTAS: As a casual observer myself, while saddened by the event I was, quite frankly, surprised by the depth of feeling and by the outpouring of grief from NASCAR's constituency.

PETTY: I think it goes back to the NASCAR fan and how the NASCAR fans feel about Jeff Gordon or Kasey or Rusty. We experienced it when Adam's accident happened. They feel like you're a part of their family. You become, Jeff Gordon becomes a part of 75 million households out there.

Rusty Wallace does, Kasey does. So when something personally happens to these guys, it's felt in 75 million homes out there. Somewhere across these country, it's felt in these people's homes. And I think when Dale's accident happened, these people felt like they lost a brother, a father, a friend, a son.

And it touched them. It touched a cord in a lot of America and in grassroots America that I don't think a lot of people understood. Like Jeff said, we understood it because we were there. But I don't think a lot of people understood how deep it ran

COSTAS: Let's sneak in a phone call very quickly. Seattle, Washington, you're up next. Thanks for holding on. Go ahead.

CALLER: Hi, gentlemen. How are you tonight?


CALLER: Good. My question is for all the drivers, actually. It's how do you choose your pit crew members?

COSTAS: How do you choose your pit crew members? Real quick, about 30 seconds.

GORDON: I mean, sometimes we just, you know, know guys that work on other teams that you'll go and steal them or something or we have tryouts also for guys over the off-season.

PETTY: Yes. We own our teams, myself and my father own our teams and the guys that work on the cars at the shop, we try those guys first, in-house pit crews and then we go outside. I know a lot of these guys have guys that work for UPS or work for different companies that just come in and are specialized pit crew guys ...

COSTAS: And, of course Rusty, if they don't work out or run afoul of you, they could be gone.

WALLACE: They could be. I could be gone if I have too many wrecks on a racetrack, that's for sure. But we've got really good pit crews. We do have tryouts, like Jeff said. And just like Kyle said, you prefer that they work in-house so you don't have to go out of house to find different people. You like to keep them involved with what's going on with the team. But these guys have got to be muscular. They've got to fast. They've got to be committed and they've got to be willing to be on the road a lot

COSTAS: I know it's an unscientific survey as we head to the last break here. But the people who run NASCAR will be happy to consider the fact that we have taken three calls. All three were from women, none of them were from the south, not that they want to turn their backs on the original constituency, but if outreach is the idea, we heard from Cincinnati, from some place in Wisconsin, from Seattle, Washington, and three for three on the women. Make of that what you will. And please watch this. We'll be right back.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our great sponsors is Irwin Industrial Tools, Sharpie.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just want to thank all the Home Depot associates and managers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: AAA World Financial Group.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tag team (ph), GMAC, Quaker State.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Paul Kurt (ph), and I wanted to win for (ph) NAPA, Domino's, Best Western, Oreo cookies, Coca-Cola. I say all that real fast, because sometimes you can't get it in.


COSTAS: They're all fronting for somebody. That's pretty clear. We have time to get in one more phone call, working toward the top of the hour when Aaron Brown will be here with "NEWSNIGHT." Jamesville, Iowa. Hello. Go ahead.

CALLER: Hi guys. I was wondering now you're in your second season with the way points are structured, what do you like about it, dislike, and would you change anything about it?

COSTAS: They changed the point system. Good, bad, indifferent?

WALLACE: It's brought a lot of excitement. I wasn't in it. They said what don't you like about it? I said I wasn't in it last year, that's what I don't like about it. This year, I'm liking it pretty much. And it brings so much attention to those teams that are in it. And the ones that are in, it's kind of tough.

GORDON: And I like it, because any other season I never even have a shot at the championship. Right now, I still have an outside chance of winning the championship and I'm 13th in points.

PETTY: Yes, well I think whether you like it or whether you don't like it, it doesn't make any difference. The fans like it. Nextel, it's their series. They like it. And when it's all said and done, NASCAR Nextel Cup racing is the greatest form of racing in this country right now.

It draws the most fans, it draws the most sponsors, it draws the most publicity. So you have got to love the system, you got to love how it works. And like Jeff says, it allows guys that maybe don't have a shot at it ten races ago to end up -- you may have him back here on LARRY KING LIVE later in the year and he may be your Nextel Cup champion. COSTAS: In about 30 seconds, what's the next stop?

GORDON: Oh, the next stop is -- this weekend where are at?


GORDON: Michigan. I don't know. I've got to go to Bristol, Tennessee and test on Wednesday. Then I'm going to Michigan so -- and then the next one.

COSTAS: It's been a pleasure being with you guys. Thanks very much. Kyle Petty, Rusty Wallace, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, superstars of NASCAR.

Tomorrow night on LARRY KING LIVE, Conan O'Brien will be with us. He, of course, does the show at 12:30 Eastern time each night following Jay Leno in NBC. And in a few years, he'll move up and take over for Jay as the host of the "Tonight Show."

So Conan O'Brien tomorrow night, and in about ten seconds, Aaron Brown will be here with "NEWSNIGHT" from New York, here on CNN.

I'm Bob Costas, filling in this week for Larry King. Thanks for being with us. We'll see you tomorrow night. For now, good night from New York.


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