By: Jeff Gluck
INDIANAPOLIS – Jeff Gordon was vacationing with his wife in the south of France when a text message from Rick Hendrick popped up on his phone.
“Call me,” it said.
Gordon turned to wife Ingrid Vandebosch and said, “Oh boy. Here we go.”
Though he had no clue why Hendrick wanted to speak, Gordon said he knew it must have been important. Once on the phone, Hendrick asked if the retired driver was going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for any appearances.
The answer was yes – Gordon was supposed to drive the pace car at the Brickyard, which hadn’t been announced yet. But Hendrick said: “Well, you better bring your uniform.”
“You’re messing with me,” Gordon said. “I know you’re messing with me.”
Hendrick wasn’t. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. ailing with concussion-like symptoms, the team needed Gordon to come out of retirement for temporary fill-in duty and drive the No. 88 car.
Despite a storybook finish to his career, where Gordon made it all the way to the championship race in his final season, the driver who won all four of his Cup championships in the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick said he didn’t hesitate to accept the offer.
It wasn’t about him, he said; it was about helping an organization that had given him everything for 23 years and pitching in for former teammate Earnhardt.
“Honestly, I didn’t have to think twice about it (because of) … the way (Hendrick) has been there for me,” Gordon said. “I didn’t anticipate this. This is certainly the last thing that was going to happen.”
Gordon said he knew there would be challenges – hydration, fitness and potential rustiness being some of them. But the 44-year-old underwent intense preparation after returning from France on Tuesday night, poring over data and video from previous tests and driving on a high-tech simulator at General Motors’ facility near Charlotte.
Then there were the basics: Gordon had to get a physical – per NASCAR requirements – and apply for a driver credential (Gordon only had an owner credential through his role as co-owner of Hendrick’s No. 48 car).
Though he acknowledged it would be weird to drive against the No. 24 car, Gordon said he didn’t consider his legacy in deciding to return.
“Really, this is just me helping out the organization,” he said. “We will see what happens on Sunday. If we are out there having fun, and put a good result together, I can tell you what is in it for me is to make that team proud, and not let them down.”
How long might Gordon fill in for Earnhardt? He declined to speculate, but it will be at least through next week at Pocono Raceway.
Hendrick said Earnhardt came by the shop on Wednesday and “looks good.”
“He’s encouraged and he’s following the doctor’s orders,” Hendrick said. “He wants to get back in the car, he wants to race. The regimen they have him on will get him right for a long time. I can tell he’s getting antsy, but he’s going to do what they say.”
Earnhardt, who said on his podcast earlier this week he is struggling with balance issues and nausea, tweeted some good news Friday morning.
“Today is the 1st day in many that I sensed improvement,” Earnhardt wrote. “Seen small gains during my physical therapy as well. Light at the end of the tunnel.”
So can Gordon win at Indianapolis, which would extend his record of five victories at the track? Hendrick’s Jimmie Johnson said the biggest challenge for Gordon might be the communication with a team he’s never worked with.
“He is going to be fast, and competitive,” Johnson said. “But to really find that last little bit, I think is more in relationships and building those relationships in a hurry.
“Jeff has been away from this side of the garage area. He’s been out of the race car. He doesn’t know these crew guys and, as we all know, the relationships that exist between driver, crew chief and engineer is really where the speed lies.”
Interestingly enough, Indianapolis wasn’t the first time Gordon was asked to fill in for a driver this season. Gordon was asked to replace Tony Stewart in the Daytona 500, he said Friday, but had to decline due to his commitments as a Fox Sports analyst.
However, that would have required NASCAR to waive its rule that a driver who has ownership in a four-car team cannot race for another organization (which would be a violation of NASCAR’s four-car cap).