Can Jeff Gordon turn something unfortunate into a coup for Hendrick Motorsports?
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver on the Sprint Cup Series, sat out Sunday’s race in New Hampshire with concussion-like symptoms. Earnhardt has experienced nausea and difficulty with balance that will cause him to miss at least two more NASCAR Sprint Cup series races, including Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Xfinity driver Alex Bowman filled in competently for Earnhardt in New Hampshire, driving among the top 10 until a cut tire pushed him back to a 26th-place finish. But Bowman doesn’t have an established brand in NASCAR, and with Earnhardt out for at least two weeks, Hendrick Motorsports would benefit from a higher-profile driver in the No. 88 Chevrolet.
Hence, the transcontinental phone call team owner Rick Hendrick made last week.
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Gordon was on a family vacation in France when the call came. Hendrick asked Gordon where he’d be next weekend. Gordon, who has completed his duties as a rookie color analyst for Fox’s portion of the Sprint Cup schedule, said he has a promotional appearance in Indianapolis. So Hendrick told him to pack a fire suit.
Gordon initially thought his former boss was joking. Quite the contrary. Hendrick needed help and Gordon quickly agreed to fill in should Earnhardt not be available.
It’s a great short-term solution. When Gordon announced his retirement, following the 2015 season, he said he didn’t anticipate any comebacks. However, he left the door open to occasionally race if the right circumstances existed.
This circumstance qualifies: Hendrick Motorsports was the platform for a Gordon career that included four NASCAR championships. Gordon isn’t just a contemporary or former teammate of Earnhardt; they are close friends.
What more appropriate venue than Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a cameo Sprint Cup appearance? Gordon was born in California but grew up in Indiana.
Of Gordon’s 93 race victories in what is now the Sprint Cup series, five came at Indianapolis. He won his first race there (August 1994) – and as recently as July of 2014. It’s as close to a home track as Gordon could claim.
The move can be good for Hendrick Motorsports, and perhaps even better for the Brickyard. When NASCAR first came to Indianapolis in the mid-1990s, it seemed a great opportunity: Bring stock cars to arguably the most famous racing venue in the country.
For whatever reason, interest and attendance at that race have waned. Perhaps it’s saturation of the Midwest racing market, with Sprint Cup events now in Kentucky and suburban Chicago.
In any case, Gordon’s presence in Indianapolis, behind a wheel, is a big story, and the event can use that. It certainly would be good for the sponsors of the No. 88 Chevy, and sponsors are the life blood of this sport.
How Gordon finishes makes no difference to whether Earnhardt ultimately qualifies for the season-ending Chase. But putting that car in a popular former champion’s hands could only be good for the brand.