On a Friday during which Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he’s starting to feel better, fill-in driver Jeff Gordon got ready to race in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Gordon, of course, is no run-of-the-mill replacement. A four-time Cup series champion who has won a record five times at Indianapolis, Gordon was a longtime teammate of Earnhardt’s at Hendrick Motorsports before retiring after last season. When team owner Rick Hendrick texted Gordon earlier this week while he was on vacation in the south of France, Gordon turned to his wife Ingrid:
“Oh boy,” Gordon said. “Here we go.”
Gordon knew Earnhardt had missed last week’s race at New Hampshire with concussion-like symptoms, with journeyman driver Alex Bowman filling in. Gordon had already been mentioned as a replacement beyond New Hampshire if Earnhardt needed more time away.
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Hendrick asked Gordon if he was planning on coming to Indianapolis. Gordon, who had already agreed to drive the pace car for Sunday’s race, said yes.
It’s an emotional challenge for a team. You never want to lose a driver and the driver never wants to get out of the car.
“He said ‘Well, you better bring your uniform,’” Gordon recalled. “I asked what he was talking about and he started to tell me about what was going on. I thought he was messing with me. (But) I knew right away the seriousness after that, and that he wasn’t joking. That it was serious.”
Gordon quickly agreed to take over Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet, in what will be stark contrast to him being in his familiar No. 24, now driven by rookie Chase Elliott. Gordon will do so again next week at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. Nothing beyond Pocono is certain, although Earnhardt posted on his Twitter account Friday that he is beginning to see the “light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Today is the 1st day in many that I sensed improvement,” Earnhardt said. “Seen small gains during my physical therapy as well. Light at the end of the tunnel.”
That was good news to Earnhardt’s boss.
“The news has been really good and the tweet this morning was really good,” said Hendrick. “(Earnhardt) looks good. He’s sharp. So I’m excited about getting him back. But I’ve just tried to leave him alone. But then he will text me.”
Jeff Gordon will drive for Dale Earnhardt Jr. for at least two races – this weekend at Indianapolis and again next week at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.
Although Gordon and Hendrick were both glad to hear Earnhardt is feeling better, Gordon said they’re not thinking about how long he might be needed.
“Let’s not speculate,” Gordon said. “Right now it’s through Pocono. We were very encouraged by Dale Jr.’s tweet and comments and the way he is feeling and hope that continues to progress and that he is back as soon as possible.”
Earnhardt felt strong enough that he visited Gordon and the No. 88 team at Hendrick’s Concord headquarters Wednesday.
“The one thing I was encouraged by when I saw him is his passion for racing, how much he loves being in the car and how much you know he is getting antsy (and) wants to get back in there,” Gordon said. “We just want him to be there when he is ready and when the doctors say he is ready. I will do whatever I need to do.”
5 Brickyard 400 victories by Jeff Gordon, most in history
Said Hendrick: “He misses this. He misses his team. He saw the guys and it really lifted them. I think between Jeff agreeing to drive the car and Junior walking in the shop, the team is really excited. When he walked in that building, it just lifted everybody up. Everybody is there for Junior and his health is the No. 1 priority.”
When Gordon arrived back in New York from France on Tuesday, he was picked up by one of Hendrick’s private planes and returned to Concord. He met with Greg Ives, Earnhardt’s crew chief, who was waiting with Gordon’s seat and steering wheel from his 2015 car.
“Luckily, we have archived and kept a lot of these things,” Gordon said.
Gordon and Ives went over race data and watched video of Earnhardt driving the No. 88. Gordon, who still had his NASCAR driver’s license, took (and passed) a physical and a drug test. The results of a mandatory baseline concussion test Gordon recently took remain current.
On Wednesday, he went to Huntersville and drove in a race simulator that replicated this season’s low-downforce package. Then it was off to Indy, where he had the ninth-fastest car in Friday’s first practice.
“It might take a few runs for him to get his bearings in the car,” said Steve Letarte, a former crew chief for both Gordon and Earnhardt who is now a commentator on NBC. “But he’s been talking to (Hendrick drivers) Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott about the new downforce package. He’s done his homework and has prepared. He’ll be fine.”
Letarte obviously has a unique view of what is happening with Earnhardt this season. He was Earnhardt’s crew chief in 2012, when two concussions forced the driver to miss two races. Regan Smith replaced him.
“It’s an emotional challenge for a team,” said Letarte. “You never want to lose a driver and the driver never wants to get out of the car.
“The biggest thing is that you’ve got to quickly learn how to interact with the driver, and just get into the whole flow of the weekend. In 2012, we had to separate the fact that your friend and driver wasn’t there. The personal side is fine, but, and I don’t mean to be cold about it, but the business side the first responsibility is to the team.”