Jeff Gordon steps up for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo by Greg Ellmann/Harold Hinson Photography

By Jerry Jordan, Editor

INDIANAPOLIS – Never let it be said that Jeff Gordon isn’t loyal to Rick Hendrick, or maybe it’s just that Mr. H is a very convincing individual hence the reason his sitting behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet as a substitute drive for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and not on vacation in France.

“If I could scroll through my phone, and look at the texts I have gotten from Rick that said ‘Call me’, I can tell you that you sit down when you call him in those instances,” said Gordon, who knew something must have been wrong for him to get a message while on vacation. “It hasn’t happened a lot, but the times that it has it is usually pretty big. I was in the South of France at that time. I think it was the second day of our vacation. Ingrid and I had planned a vacation to go over there. I get that text, and I looked at her and said ‘Oh boy, here we go’. I had no idea. When Rick said to me ‘Are you coming to Indianapolis?’ I said ‘Yes I am. I am coming on Saturday’. He said ‘Well, you better bring your uniform’. 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. I knew he was messing with me. I knew right away the seriousness after that, and that he wasn’t joking. That it was serious. Honestly I didn’t have to think twice about it.”

And it was serious. While Gordon and his wife were enjoying themselves in Southern France, the No. 88 team was losing its leader and fans were learning that NASCAR’s most popular driver wasn’t able to race because of concussion-like symptoms that left him dizzy and off-balance. He thought it was allergies and several drivers, including teammate Jimmie Johnson, sent him remedies they thought would help. But it was more than that. After Earnhardt Jr. visited with medical professionals, the decision was made that he couldn’t drive and that meant someone would have to fill-in.

Alex Bowman was tabbed to drive last week but Gordon would be the team’s decision going forward. He may have been the driver at New Hampshire Motor Speedway but getting him back from vacation and cleared to race was impossible. He wasn’t even listed as a driver in NASCAR’s records.

“When Rick calls, he has that confidence in me, and asked me to step-up and do something for the organization – whether it was driver, or other responsibilities. The way he has been there for me. The way this team and organization has been there for me over the years, I didn’t anticipate this. This is certainly the last thing that was going to happen. But I knew it was Indianapolis. I didn’t think about it. I felt like if there was one place that I was capable of doing it, it would be here.

“I got back from France on Tuesday. I landed in New York; Mr. Hendrick was kind enough to have a plane there waiting for me to bring me to Charlotte. I landed in Charlotte, drove straight to the shop and spent the evening with the team. They had already put the seat in and the steering wheel and had been working with the No. 24 team that had access to everything the seat and the liner. Luckily, we have archived and kept a lot of these things. Really, this is basically my seat from Homestead, probably my steering wheel as well. So, I spent the evening and it was really close, there were just a couple of little minor tweaks. I came back the next morning to the shop and started that process. I had to get a physical. I had to do all the NASCAR requirements. I have an owner credential I don’t have a driver credential, so had to go through that process and spent the whole day there with Greg Ives.”

That was before he had the chance to take a lap in the No. 88 Axalta Chevy. After final practice, on Friday, Gordon said it was tough but he is still looking forward to helping out the team.

“Being out of the car that long and not really having a lot of experience with this package it was a tall task, I will be honest, It was one of the most challenging days I’ve had in a race car to try to get comfortable, be consistent, have the speed and give good feedback,” Gordon said. “I mean I still love this track and I’m glad that we are doing this this weekend because I think that helps me have the confidence to be able to learn faster, but it’s tough. It was tough. That first run I was like ‘wow’ I forgot how hard of work this is.”

When asked if he was having any second thoughts or would rather be vacationing in France with his wife, Gordon played it safe. Sure vacations are nice but he has a job to do and a responsibility to Team Hendrik.

“France is good, but no this is very rewarding to be here to be a part of this race,” he said. “To fulfill this position that … I will tell you what I’ve got a lot of appreciation for Alex Bowman. Whether you are a four-time champion and a five-time Brickyard 400 winner or the accomplishments that Alex has, I can’t imagine what he was going through at New Hampshire, because I know what I was going through today and it was a tremendous amount of pressure and anxiety. I’m glad we got through day one clean and looking forward to day two.”

Gordon will roll off the grid for Sunday’s 23rd Annual Crown Royal Presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at The Brickyard in 21st position.

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