In a series seemingly dominated by young hot shots looking toward the Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendricks of the world, it’s a nice reminder when the name Jeff Green pops up on the time sheet every week in the XFINITY Series. And though the veteran’s name may be a little lower on the board nowadays, the success and stories from his championship career cannot be measured by a lap time in 2016.
Growing up in Kentucky, Green was part of a trio of brothers [Mark and David] who chased their father’s occupation of driving racecars – and being darn good at it.
Joining Green’s 2000 XFINITY title, which was won by a then-record 616 points, 16 trips to Victory Lane complimented his 436 starts while also competing in 270 Sprint Cup Series races from 1991 to as recent as Richmond last spring.
Racing for car owners like Richard Childress, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson, the now 53-year-old brings his old-school expertise to some of the smaller teams in the second-tier series.
Recently bringing home a seventh-place finish July in Daytona, Green has raced in four car numbers in 2016, as he balances both racing and the classic Kentucky lifestyle.
Frontstretch sat down with Green at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to discuss his career in NASCAR, his relationship with Dale Earnhardt, Sr., his thoughts on the XFINITY Series and much more.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: What are your feelings toward racing at Indianapolis? Is this a special track for you?
Jeff Green: It’s special for all of us, really. Growing up in Kentucky, for one, you’re always watching the Indy 500. Never really dreamed that I’d ever get to race at this place. So much history, so much thins you cherish when you drive through the tunnel here at the big Indy racetrack.
We raced here in the Busch Series [now XFINITY] raced over at IRP back in the day. That place was so much fun and it’s hard to give up that to come here. But also, when they brought the schedule here and brought our cars here, it was a very special moment.
I got to run a Cup car here before the XFINITY Series came so I had a little more experience than most of these guys. It doesn’t take these guys too long to catch up. It’s been fun to come here, it’s close to home.
Catanzareti: As a little kid from Kentucky, did you ever envision yourself racing here one day?
Green: I never did because I wasn’t an open wheel guy. I raced go karts growing up and we watched the Indy 500 because of that. But we never got into sprint cars, never really thought about driving an Indy car. Stock cars weren’t around this part of the world back then.
Then, when I got to running Charlotte and Daytona, places like that, you always think ‘Man, hopefully one of these days we can maybe at least come see this place.’
There is so much heritage, so much history. Tom Sneva, Mario Andretti, there are so many people that paved the way for this racetrack. It’s unbelievable we get to race on it like they did.
Catanzareti: What first grabbed your interest in racing?
Green: My dad was drag racing while as [brothers] David, Mark and myself were growing up. When I started racing go karts, that was the only thing we could do back then: To race something. I was too young to race a drag car.
My dad was a big mentor of ours and was able to get us into go karts, been able to travel all over Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and race the go karts on the weekend. One thing left to another, I ride over to a late model. Growing up around Whitesville, Kentucky, there close to Owensboro. My biggest track was the Fairgrounds at Nashville, TN, the 5/8th-mile oval. Now you go back there and it’s a little bull ring.
My brothers, we were all competitive. We would race bicycles, anything we could race while growing up. We had that competitive energy and was able to turn it into a career basically.
Fixin make some laps at KMS the track where it all started back in 1980 pic.twitter.com/RRVME28kWd
— jeff green (@buckcentral10) June 8, 2016
Catanzareti: You posted a picture on Twitter recently of a Legend car at a track it all started at in 1980. What is the story behind that?
Green: That was Whitesville, Kentucky. I had a Legend car myself that I have at home that I race every once in a while. They had a Legend race there a couple weeks ago and that was the first time I had been back since 1982 or ’83. As many things have changed in this world, that hadn’t really changed a lot. A lot of memories there and a lot of folks that you see that you raced against and grew up challenging through a weekend on that track. it just worked to to be able t go back up there, I was glad of that.
Catanzareti: In your early NASCAR days, you raced for Junior Johnson. What was it like having such an icon underneath you as you started?
Green: I really didn’t know back then. I was so young – I say I was young, I was late 20’s or early 30’s, that’s old these days! I really didn’t realize what opportunity I had. I had Dale Earnhardt on the other end of the phone trying to get me to drive his Busch car and Junior Johnson wanting to come drive for him.
Between ’94 and ’95, that was a big year for me and it gave me an opportunity to get my face out there and get my recognition I needed to get to the next level, the Cup Series. Without Dale Earnhardt or Junior Johnson, Earl Sadler out of Nashville gave me an opportunity to drive some Cup races before all that even happened.
Without all those guys – I’ve been very blessed and very lucky to be in this sport for as long as I’ve had. I’ve driven for Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress, Richard Petty, I can just keep going on of the big-time names I’ve been able to be around and learn from. That’s the biggest thing.
Catanzareti: Go back to that first Cup race you ran. Were the emotions high? Did you understand the spotlight you were on at that point?
Green: I knew how big it was. These days, it would probably be even higher with your thoughts and things you go through and your preparation would be higher because of the media and track we go to. But back then it was a little more laid back you might say. It’s still the Cup Series, or Winston Cup Series back then.
To get on the same track as Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Harry Gant, those guys, not a lot of these folks in this garage area can say that. I’m very blessed to have had that opportunity back then. Each and every day people ask me about this sport and if I had to get into it right now, I would never be able to do it. It’s changed that much.
Back then it was all about talent and all about what you can do on the racetrack. These days it’s so much different. You don’t go in with the same mindset when you come to the racetrack. You have a different mindset of what you’re there to do. To me, personally, it’s more of a business then it is a hobby or something you crave to do. In the late 90s or early 2000s when I won my championship in 2000, every time I rode into the gate or in the tunnel of any racetrack, I had an opportunity to win. Those days were very, very special to me and it was good times back then.
Catanzareti: When it comes to joining this sport, what advice would you give a younger driver, who’s maybe struggling? It is tougher nowadays, like you said.
Green: If you had sponsors behind you, you can go drive just about any car in this garage area. Especially the XFINITY side. Those guys have to be more talented in that area of our sport than they do driving, I think. These days, it doesn’t hurt to have the capabilities of winning races, but if you have the sponsors behind you and the people that will carry you through that, it makes it easier for them.
In one aspect I think it’s easier and one aspect I think it’s harder because it’s just tough to go out and there and get money.
Catanzareti: If it was like it is now back when you started, where marketing is so important, do you believe you would not have been able to get into it?
Green: I don’t think so. I’ve never been a guy that went out and chased money. I’m not the kind of guy that will go suit up in a suit and tie and go sit down and talk to people and try to talk them into giving you money. And no disrespect at all, that’s the talent those young guys and agents have.
But it was so much different back then. These car owners would come and look at what you’re doing at a local track. I remember running Nashville, TN, there for a couple years and Dale Earnhardt and Harry Gant would come race with us every once in a while. That’s where I got my door open, I think, is those guys being able to compete against them and show them that you’re capable of getting the job done.
Catanzareti: Why do you think it changed? Why was it easier back then?
Green: I think it’s just corporate media. The corporate companies wanting young talent they can future into. Back then, I remember sponsors would come and go, year by year or every three of fours years. Some would stay forever.
I’m not near the smartest guy in the garage but everything has changed. NASCAR is bigger, there are more folks that watch it, TV covers more racing. All that saying, I think our corporate America wants to be a part of it and sometimes they may not want to be a part of it.
And it costs more to run these cars, too. We had 30 races, now we have 38. So it costs more to go to the racetrack, it costs more to get these trucks up and down the road. Everything is more expensive in our world so that just unables and enables people to do it.
Catanzareti: Having two brothers in that racing path growing up, how big of an impact did that have on you, having two brothers going for the same trophy?
Green: I had a baseline, basically. What David and Mark did, I felt like I could do it as good or better. They felt the same way. I think we pushed each other. Without David getting there or me getting there, Mark getting there, I don’t think the rest of us would’ve gotten there.
David kind of paved the way and he was opening doors as he was going forward for Mark and myself. Without the two brothers I don’t think it would’ve been as easy. It wasn’t easy, but it wouldn’t have been as easy.
Again, they were competitive. I knew I could bounce things off them and they would shoot me straight. It’s not like going to your competitor or another team, crew chief or other driver. They’re going to tell you what you want to hear and that hadn’t changed at all.
Catanzareti: Was there a competition among you guys or did you try to help each other instead of being competitive?
Green: No, we helped each other no doubt. Mark and David raced together more as we grew up. I was always in a different class in go karts there in Whitesville. Really, the first few times we raced together was in the Busch Series. For me to see David out front, for me to see Mark out front, hopefully they would think the same thing, that could make me smile.
I knew if they could get there, maybe we could share the same notes or share the same capabilities to make myself better. It was a big effort for all of us. There aren’t a lot of families that come along in our sport and all of them able to make it.
Catanzareti: Did you ever race for a win with one or both of them?
Green: Yeah, we did a couple times with David. At Pikes Peak in 2000, I think, we raced right down to the white flag and I was able to get by him. I actually passed him with four or five laps to go and he got back by me. It was a duel to the end. I’m sure he probably wanted it to end the other way but I was really happy with it. It was a good day for me and hopefully he can say the same.
Catanzareti: Do you guy reminisce together about those days? Are they fun conversations?
Green: They are. Again, those are those days and these are these days. David and Mark are still in the sport. David is the safety inspector with NASCAR, so he works for NASCAR. Mark is a crew chief now so they’re still digging, they’re just not making laps like I am.
We’ve been fortunate. I think we can all say our blessings every day for what God has given us, giving us capabilities and the talent to prolong my career here. David, I think he’s enjoying his job to be able to work with all these guys in the garage area, crew chiefs, all the drivers. If he had to create a job that’s probably what he would have created.
Catanzareti: You were with some big teams like RCR. Going back to those years, what did that do for your career, being with a team that big? You were really able to showcase your talent.
Green: That’s right. I was able to get in first-class equipment. We never won a Cup race, come close a couple times but to know you have the same – back then Kevin Harvick was my teammate – to know you have the same equipment he has and to baseline yourself off him and to know you’re doing just as good a job as he is, that’s a check in my head to know I could get the job done with the right equipment.
For those guys to put me in that car, that was a blessing for me. They’re never going to take that away from me. I moved on but they can never take those days away and those memories away from me.
Catanzareti: Is there any Cup win that may have slipped through your fingers that you could’ve gotten?
Green: We ran second at New Hampshire in ’02. We had a restart and Ward Burton ended up winning, he got away from me on that restart. I actually restarted third and I took way too much time to get around second place, which was Dale Jarrett, and [Burton] got way too far out in front for me to catch him. We were actually the fastest car at the end of the race but it just didn’t work out for me. Those days, still, second place was still a good day for us.
These races are so tough to win and they’re not getting any easier for sure. They were still tough back then.
Catanzareti: You’re obviously one of the only people to drive a black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy. Looking back on footage of those races, do you still pinch yourself that you were the one inside that car?
Green: Well, I was working for Michael Waltrip. Michael and Dale were really good friends of course. That was in 1994 and Michael knew I was wanting to drive full time. I didn’t want to spot and work for him all my life. My career was put on hold at that point.
So Dale and Michael was talking and I came home one afternoon and Dale Earnhardt had a message on my recorder so for the next three or four hours I was calling all my buddies to see who pulled a prank on me. It sounded like Dale Earnhardt but I didn’t figure it was him.
Long story short, that worked out really good. I went to work for him. He drove the Busch car until that but it wasn’t a full-time deal. Those two years were very learnable for me, I learned a lot. I learned a lot about life from Dale Earnhardt. I learned a lot about racing, but I probably learned more about life from him. He taught me a lot and I’ll never forget those days.
Take the racing out of it, I got to ride around his farm looking for deer and things like that. I got to hunt with him so those things were pretty special and they can’t take that away from me.
Catanzareti: Any fun hunting story with Dale?
Green: We can’t talk about that! We were actually killing a buck that wasn’t going to make anything better and he had a big stud buck beside him. We were on his farm, which he grew deer back then. He just let me know which deer to shoot basically. He was funny about it but he was a good sport about it. Again, he was a good guy and I miss him every day.
Catanzareti: Comparing your early days, or your XFINITY championship in 2000, to what you’re doing to today, it’s such a different rollercoaster. How do you look at that transition for you?
Green: I look at it as a job these days. I’m getting into the years where I enjoy doing other things. I put 100 percent when I’m at the racetrack but I live back in Kentucky now, so I’m away from North Carolina. I really can’t be around the race team. To be able to go out there and have a chance to compete is one thing, and we’re competitive with our team here at TriStar. We’re racing for 15th to 20th every week.
I’ve done some start-and-park stuff the last four or five years. I’m getting a paycheck for doing that but it’s not the most fun. I’d rather have an opportunity to go out and compete with Kyle Busch. I feel like those guys are no better than I am, even at my age.
Those opportunities are probably far and few between and probably gone so I just look at it as my work. It’s my job and I try to do the best job I can for each lap I do, try to give feedback to the team to make our other teams better. If I can do that, I feel like I’m successful.
Catanzareti: So you still have the confidence that you can go out there and win races if you were with the right team?
Green: I think so. There’s nothing that has changed in my world other than getting older. I still have the sensation and the feel I need in my butt to tell the guys what I need in the racecar. We’re just racing a bunch of Cup teams on the XFINITY side basically. Those guys have all the resources they can pull from. I can’t and we can’t overcome that each and every week.
Catanzareti: Your final full-time Cup season was 2007 when you worked with Gene Haas in the No. 66. Right now, he’s one of the biggest teams in the sport. How do you look at what he’s been able to put together since you were part of his early career?
Green: Without Tony Stewart there, it’d still be Gene Haas Racing. Gene was great to me, he gave me an opportunity there for a couple years. But with Tony coming over, that brought the people he needed. Gene spent as much money as Hendrick Motorsports did, I think, but the people surrounding those racecars and putting their hands on them every week has made the difference.
Gene did great to get Tony beside him there. I feel like, and Gene would probably tell you the same thing, without Tony, it probably wouldn’t be the same thing. Having four teams over there, I feel like that’s a bonus. We had two back then. Johnny Sauter was my teammate. He was young just like I was. We probably didn’t know what we wanted and the people surrounding us didn’t really know what we wanted. We were kind of following Hendrick’s footsteps there.
Some of the pieces of the pie were missing. Gene has done good, he’s, like you said, one of the top dogs in the garage area these days. Tony, I feel, has done that for him.
Catanzareti: There are a lot of drivers coming in and out of the sport, Tony Stewart retiring, Jeff Gordon is back again but he’s hung it up full time. Mentally, what is that like for you because you’ve been here, you have so much experience and you’ve seen so many drivers come and go??
Green: It’s tough because it means you’re getting older, too. I’m getting to the age where, again, I want to do something different, too. I still enjoy and when I quit enjoying it, I’m probably going to do something different.
It is tough to see – Jeff Gordon is a lot younger than I am but he got to a point where he maybe needed to do something different, too. Tony, those guys are way too young to be doing that but they have other things they enjoy. I think that’s the wear and tear of going up and down the road. I know they’re on airplanes but they’re still traveling, they’re away from home. I enjoy being at home with my wife and my dogs. I’ve got deer I hunt, I have a farm in Kentucky that I enjoy hunting turkey and deer.
Those guys are probably no different than I am. They have different things they want to do and they’ve done it for a long time, too. It’s just time for those guys to do something different.
Catanzareti: Dale Earnhardt, Jr., he’s out because of an injury, Tony was out a couple times. Have you ever raced injured? Have you ever been injured in a racecar?
Green: I broke my tailbone at Pocono in ’03 and for the next two months I was riding on a donut basically in the seat. The doctors were giving me the stuff I needed to make it through the race but that’s really the only injury I’ve ever had.
Those guys, that’s their livelihood, their business. Unfortunately, when you step out of the car there is always somebody there to get in. These days, it’s no different than back then. If you mess up, there is somebody there going to replace you. The jobs are tough to come by, especially guys on the Cup side. Those jobs are very few and far between. I can see – Dale Earnhardt, Jr., he would never race again and he’s made his name in this sport. I know he still has a lot of things to do in a racecar but he’ll be back soon before too long.
Catanzareti: After that Pocono crash in 2003, did you ever think about stepping out? Dale Jr. is financially stable to step out but where was your mindset at the time?
Green: I never really thought about it to tell you the truth. We weren’t hurting for money and didn’t really think about money back then, you know. I had all the money we ever needed and my main focus was racing. I had to do the job.
That particular race, we had three or four laps to go and a caution came out. I was going to end up being third in that race. A caution came out, bunched everybody up and I got wrecked on the restart. Leaving that track with a broken tailbone, I knew I had a car that had a chance to win. That gets you back to the next race having those kinds of opportunities. No matter how much pain you’re in, you’re going to get set up in there and try to do the best job you can.
Catanzareti: Jumping to today, what have you learned most from small teams? You’ve seen so much hard work here, they want it just as much as Cup guys, maybe even more. What have you learned the most from these past few years?
Green: You have to do without. Back when I was racing full time, we never worried about how we were going to buy tires or how we were going to buy anything for the racecar, we just did it. The bills got paid. Fortunately, I wasn’t on the end of that part of it but nowadays you have to worry about if you’re going to have practice tires or who’s going to give you a set of tires to practice on. The money part of it is the only thing that worries my race team. It’s hard for me to worry about it because it’s not going to do any good with me being worried about it. I can’t do anything about it.
The race team comes week-in and week-out worrying about how we’re going to make it through practice, through the race and get back home. Not that things are that tight but just trying to save enough money to make sure we have the right resources and enough money to do the things we need to do to get better.
Catanzareti: You got the top 10 at Daytona a few weeks ago. Compare that with how big it was for the team to finish in the top 10 verses when you were with a big team and you won. Is it really that different or is it just a big accomplishment for you?
Green: It’s been, I can’t remember, 10 years or so since I had been in the top 10. So it was pretty big for me. Not that I ever dreamed that I was not capable of doing that. I used to hate those restrictor plate races. You can flip a coin on whether you’re going to get in a wreck or not. To be able to be on the good side of that coin was relishing for us.
The team, that could be their best finish all year long so I was happy for those guys. Like you said, they work just as hard as the big teams do so to have that support and to get a little back to them – I felt I had a little hand in that. It’s good, I enjoyed every minute of it and hopefully they did, too.
Catanzareti: You touched on the current-day XFINITY Series. So many young drivers coming up. You’re in a different position than you once were. What are your thoughts on the XFINITY Series today?
Green: I think it’s as big as it ever has [been]. The things I see on TV, the commercials they do, they never did that – it wasn’t like that back in the Busch Series in 2000 and 2001 when I was really into it heavy. The exposure the drivers are getting, the exposure the sponsors and teams are getting is second to none. They get as much exposure as the Cup teams do. I think that’s awesome and I think XFINITY and NASCAR have done such a good job on advertising and getting the media involved with it.
Sometimes you hear people say the XFINITY Series is kind of like how the Cup Series was a couple years ago. I think they are all over it, they just keep raising the bar every year. The sponsors, car owners, crew chiefs, drivers, everybody to get their name out there. Because of NASCAR and the media in letting us do that, that’s why it’s gotten there.
Catanzareti: What are your thoughts on the Sprint Cup Series? They have the new low-downforce package changing the racing up. Your last Cup race was last year.
Green: The only thing – I think it’s great, they’ve done a great job being able to make the competition as level as they can. NASCAR has kind of gotten everybody such in a box, the crew chiefs, it’s out of their hand. Harold Holly, my crew chief in 2000, man, he was working day and night trying to get a competitive edge. These guys, they don’t have much of a competitive edge anymore. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I think, as a driver, I think that’s bad because if I hadn’t had that back in the early days, I might not have been able to win races like I did or as many races.
I credit my crew chief Harold Holly for being able to do that and he was the innovator in some of the stuff they’ve taken away from these guys. NASCAR, they still got cars close enough and for a person to get an advantage, it’s pretty slim to none. When they go back to that room after the race, they get caught sometimes because they’re trying to make an advantage during the race.
Last week, Matt [Kenseth, New Hampshire winner] because his car didn’t clear inspection after the race, the laser inspection, which means they’re doing something during the race or after the race starts to move things around. They’re working on it, but NASCAR has a pretty good hold on it.
Catanzareti: How much tougher were the cars to drive back in the 90s and early 2000s? Are there more similarities or differences between the two?
Green: I don’t think they were tougher to drive, I think the driver had a to more input into it. These days, the cars are so balanced or unbalanced that the driver can’t make a difference. I can let off earlier, pick the gas up earlier back then and it would make the car do different things. These days, if you’re not 99-percent correct on your chassis, you’ll never make a difference.
Back to one of your older questions, I think some of that is what these drivers are fighting these days. They can’t make a difference. You can win late model races all your life and come in here, and if you don’t have a car to drive, you’re not going to be able to keep up and be competitive with these guys.
Catanzareti: What was your favorite paint scheme in your career? Many would say the Nesquick car, but did you have a favorite paint scheme?
Green: The [Nos.] 3 and 43 cars were pretty special to me. But the Nesquik car was really special. Some of those Cheerios paint schemes were pretty cool. They had a gold one here, it was Cheerios logo but it had a gold car here at the Brickyard. We finished 10th or 11th in ’04. I can’t put a hand on one of them but looking back on my success, I’d have to land toward the Nesquik car.
Catanzareti: How would you like to be remembered in this sport? A champion or some underdog from Kentucky who made it big time?
Green: I hope they remember me as a champion. Hopefully they remember me as a hard worker and a clean, respected driver. I really try hard to do the best job I can on the racetrack, not to make someone else’s day wrong. Hopefully they can remember me from that and the races that I won. I don’t remember one that I took advantage of someone to win it. Hopefully they can remember me having respect for the competitors and being able to wheel a racecar.
[Below is our video capture of the full 29-minute interview with Jeff Green.]