Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon could come out of retirement next weekend and drive the No. 88 Chevrolet if Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not cleared to race.
Earnhardt will sit out this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because he shows symptoms of a concussion. Alex Bowman will drive in his place.
Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt said Friday that Gordon has agreed to return and drive next week if he is needed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon won the last of his record five Brickyard 400 victories in 2014.
Gordon has not raced since last season’s finale at Homestead, wrapping up a career that included 93 career Cup victories and series championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. He has called NASCAR races for Fox Sports television.
Gordon tweeted he was in France this weekend, which him ruled him out for a potential return at New Hampshire.
Duchardt said a decision will likely be made on Wednesday. He also did not say whether Gordon would continue to drive in the 88 should Earnhardt not be cleared beyond the Brickyard.
“It’s about making sure that he gets better and supporting him and his decision,” Duchardt said. “It takes a lot to come out and address some of the health concerns that he had. It’s not about what are we going to do when he does come back. It’s all about getting better on a timeline that’s satisfied to him.”
Earnhardt was evaluated in Charlotte this week and doctors did not clear him to race. NASCAR’s most popular driver, Earnhardt was involved in a 22-car wreck in Daytona this month and also wrecked last month at Michigan International Speedway. He says he was feeling fine last week and thought the problem was allergies. There is no timetable for his return.
“I appreciate everyone’s support and prayers and will miss my team terribly this weekend. I’m working with some great doctors to get well,” Earnhardt tweeted.
Earnhardt also missed two races in 2012 when it was determined he’d suffered two concussions in six weeks.
Duchardt said Earnhart told the team last weekend at Kentucky that he wasn’t feeling well and again on Tuesday that he was feeling worse. Earnhardt said the team needed to at least consider a backup driver for New Hampshire.
Earnhardt eventually visited a team of neurologists and underwent concussion testing.
“My understanding was, Dale was told that he shouldn’t race,” Duchardt said. “He knew he wasn’t feeling well and had concerns about being in the car and running the whole race. To get healed, he needed to be out of the car.”
Duchardt could not say whether Earnhardt actually had a concussion and declined to speculate on just how long NASCAR’s most popular driver could be out of action.
NASCAR mandated in 2013 for drivers to submit a baseline neurocognitive assessment. When a driver in NASCAR can’t return his damaged car to the garage, a trip to the care center is required. And under a new three-step process, a driver showing any indication of a head injury must go immediately to a hospital. Concussed drivers must be cleared by an independent neurologist or neurosurgeon before they can get back in a race car.
Earnhardt had already pledged his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The group works with Boston University on research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease that doctors believe is caused by repeated blows to the head.
The 41-year-old Earnhardt is winless this season and 13th in the points standings. Because he will not start every race, Earnhardt will need a waiver from NASCAR to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship if he meets other eligibility requirements.
The 23-year-old Bowman has not raced in the Cup series this season and had no top-10 finishes in 71 starts over the 2014-15 seasons. He drives part time in the second-tier Xfinity Series for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team.
“I’m not here to try and be Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Bowman said.
Johnson wins 1st pole of season
Jimmie Johnson gave Hendrick Motorsports a needed bright spot, turning a lap of 133.971 mph Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to win his first pole of the season.
Johnson, a two-time race winner this season, could use a boost after a five-race slump where he failed to finish better than 13th. He has crashed out of his last two races, finishing 35th at Daytona International Speedway and 32nd last weekend at Kentucky Speedway.
He was the lone Hendrick Motorsports driver in the top five.