Two weeks ago, Jeff Gordon was enjoying the life of a retired driver. With FOX Sports done airing Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series races for the season, the four-time champion was in France, midway through a vacation with his wife, Ingrid.
Then, Gordon got a text from Rick Hendrick that changed everything. A few, actually. They all said the same thing.
“I can tell you that you sit down when you call him in those instances,” Gordon said. “It hasn’t happened a lot, but the times it has it’s usually something big.
“I got that text and I looked at (Ingrid) and said, “Oh boy.” He wasn’t joking. He was serious,” Gordon said.
Knowing his friend was in need of help, Gordon called Hendrick shortly after seeing the texts. Hendrick first asked if Gordon was coming to Indianapolis. When Gordon confirmed that he was, Hendrick told him something that he at first made out to be a joke: You better bring your uniform.
With Dale Earnhardt, Jr., out recovering from lingering concussion-like symptoms, Hendrick Motorsports needed a driver to pilot Earnhardt’s No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet. Alex Bowman had driven the car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but Hendrick wanted Gordon to take over the machine at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.
It wasn’t the first offer to drive a Cup car that Gordon had seen this season – the veteran divulged that he turned down a chance to drive for the injured Tony Stewart in the season-opening Daytona 500 due to commitments to FOX – but this time, circumstances were different.
“Honestly, I didn’t have to think twice about it,” Gordon said. “When Rick calls, he has that confidence in me to step up and handle whatever responsibilities.
“When I knew it was Indianapolis, I didn’t think twice about it.”
Ironically, Gordon was originally slated to drive the pace car for Sunday’s Crown Royal Presents The Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at the Brickyard. The announcement was to be made in the week leading up to the race.
Instead, he’ll be wheeling the No. 88, the car typically driven by the most popular driver in NASCAR. Gordon will fill in for an Earnhardt and compete against the No. 24, a sight that will certainly be strange for all involved.
“When I’m standing outside and looking at the 88 car with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s name over the doors, it’s certainly a unique situation. I don’t know how that’s going to impact me,” Gordon said.
“I’m just going to be focused on doing my job the best I can, and hopefully walk away from this experience with them in a good place, and where I can hold my head up high about the job that I did.”
Gordon will make his 798th career start on Sunday, searching for to add to his NASCAR record five wins on the 2.5-mile oval. The four-time champion will then return for a 799th start next weekend at Pocono.
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