NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon realized how crazy and hectic the past 10 days have been when he noticed he was completely out of clean clothes.
“I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone,” said Gordon, who came out of retirement (though he rejects that term) to fill in for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is recovering from concussion symptoms.
“It’s been pretty strange and weird and awkward and fun all mixed together.”
The strangeness, the awkwardness and the fun might not be over at the conclusion of Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. Hendrick Motorsports announced Gordon would fill in for Earnhardt for at least Indianapolis and Pocono. There’s no telling right now whether Earnhardt will be cleared to drive the road course at Watkins Glen in another week.
By skipping Watkins Glen, Earnhardt would create two more weeks to recover, since there is no Sprint Cup race the following weekend. Gordon didn’t want to engage in such speculation Friday, but he did share this about his commitment to team owner Rick Hendrick:
“I’ll be here as long as they need me.”
This is not out of ego or a need to again be the center of attention. It’s about Gordon being the ultimate company man. When Hendrick called him in France, where Gordon was having a family vacation, and asked him to suit up for the Brickyard, Gordon didn’t hesitate.
But Gordon has also gone out of his way to say he’ll be happy to turn in his fire suit when Earnhardt is well. Gordon wants no special attention for what he’s doing these weeks.
When Gordon was asked whether there was any chance of merchandise coming out with him featured in the No. 88 Chevrolet, Gordon said, “Zero chance.”
“We made a conscious decision there wouldn’t be ‘Gordon’ anywhere on the car. I just have too much respect for what Dale is going through,” Gordon said. “I am a fill-in driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s pure and simple as that.”
Yes and no. Gordon might not be looking for attention, but he’s still the driven competitor who won four Sprint Cup championships. So while he’d like to run laps for grins and giggles, that’s just not his nature or the nature of his long-term relationship with Hendrick.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I’m always striving for that for me and for the car,” Gordon said. “I beat myself up and push myself to be the best out there. If I’m not doing that, then I’m going to be hard on myself.
“This whole experience is something that is one I want to enjoy and take a little bit more lightly, but I can’t. It’s just not who I am.”
The other issue is physical. Gordon might have the will to keep driving, if Earnhardt needs more time, but he’s also 44 and has had a bad back for years.
Gordon said some of his comments after finishing 13th in Indianapolis last weekend were misinterpreted. He wasn’t exhausted following his first race in eight months, but he was hot with temperatures exceeding 95 degrees.
“Definitely the muscles I haven’t used in a while were on fire Monday and Tuesday,” Gordon said. “But I felt good today.”
Gordon said his role is to keep the No. 88 team confident and keep in mind he’s still a temp for NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“It’s a surreal experience. This is something you can’t plan for or anticipate,” Gordon said.
“It was odd just when it went from one race to two races. Will it be more? I don’t know, but I’m thankful the team believes in me and that gives me confidence in myself.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell