Jeff Gordon has a tough time saying no to Rick Hendrick.
That’s why Gordon, driving for a final time this season as a substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday’s Goody’s 500 at Martinsville Speedway, sounds a little vague about how “retired” he actually is.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Gordon said. “I can promise you I had no intentions of this happening, but here I am. ‘Never say never,’ is all I know what to say.”
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Gordon then laughs, thinking about Hendrick, his former boss and team owner of Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy.
“I really don’t think I will be getting back in the Cup car again,” Gordon said. “But go ask Rick Hendrick. That really has more to do with him than anything else.”
Gordon certainly didn’t say no in July, when, while on vacation in the south of France, he received a text from Hendrick, asking if he would help fill in for Earnhardt, who at the time was out indefinitely with a concussion.
Gordon, 45, who thought he had retired after the 2015 season from a certain NASCAR Hall of Fame career that includes four championships and 93 victories, had spent the first half of this season as a television commentator for Fox. The second half was to be reserved for family time.
But when Hendrick’s text buzzed on his phone, Gordon’s sense of loyalty quickly kicked in.
He turned to his wife Ingrid and said: “Oh, boy. Here we go.”
Earnhardt’s concussion soon turned into a season-ending injury. Gordon again answered Hendrick’s call, agreeing to finish out the year for Earnhardt, splitting time with journeyman Alex Bowman.
“I hope in the future that the drivers don’t have a situation like what we had with Junior, where they need somebody to fill in for them,” Gordon said. “This little bit of experience has been kind of good for me, good for the organization and we have had a little bit of fun with it as well. If I had to do it (again), then certainly I would. But I don’t anticipate it.
“I was kind of happy to do more, sad about the situation. But if they needed me, I wanted to do a little bit more to get more comfortable with the team and the cars.”
Sunday’s Martinsville race will be Gordon’s eighth in Earnhardt’s seat. Results have been generally underwhelming (as they have for Bowman, who will drive in the three remaining races of the season after Martinsville), with Gordon’s best finish so far a 10th at Dover in September.
But Martinsville is another matter for Gordon. He has nine career victories on the short track in southern Virginia, none more meaningful than last October. His victory in that race clinched a spot in the Chase’s championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I love this track,” Gordon said of Martinsville. “Obviously, I have amazing memories from this race last year. I guess there was a part of me that wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back and take away from that, but at the same time I’ve always said if there is one track that I feel like I could get back in the car and feel comfortable and competitive, it’s this track.”
While Gordon isn’t racing for a championship, he has more than a passing interest in how another Hendrick driver fares Sunday. He remains a part owner of Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team, which remains very much alive in the Chase.
“Jeff has always been a resource,” said Johnson. “But here this weekend is even more of a resource for me than really any other time I’ve raced against him. I look at really pulling off of Jeff this weekend and using him to make my car better to work on my techniques and hopefully get the best performance out of myself.”
Will he race against his friend again? Johnson answers in the same vein as Gordon.
“That is so hard to say,” said Johnson. “He is one heck of a sub to have sitting on the bench when you need it. I’m not sure he is ready to completely stop. I think he was ready to get off the merry-go-round of 39 races a year, but the full stop -- I don’t think he is ready for.”