Jeff Gordon willing to sub for Earnhardt as long as needed
LONG POND, Pa. – Jeff Gordon weaved his way through a mob of fans outside the media center, all screaming for an autograph from a driver they thought would never again wear a firesuit.
He stepped over the tripod legs of three TV cameras lined against a side wall, patted a reporter on the back and took a seat on the dais where he was peppered with questions about how long his comeback tour might last.
“I’ll be here as long as they need me,” Gordon said. “I say that very loosely.”
At Pocono Raceway, Gordon made it seem for hundreds of fans on Friday like he never left racing.
Gordon 2.0 will last only as long as Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains sidelined with concussion-like symptoms. Earnhardt will miss his third straight race Sunday and Gordon will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet for the second straight weekend. There is no timetable on Earnhardt’s return.
What should have been a leisurely first summer of retirement for a driver once sponsored by AARP has instead turned into a hectic world tour for Gordon. He was vacationing in France when team owner Rick Hendrick asked him to come out of retirement. He returned to racing at the Brickyard in Indianapolis. Then it was off to a sponsorship commitment in Mexico. This weekend, he looks to extend his track record for wins with his seventh.
His busiest task?
“Doing some laundry,” Gordon said, smiling.
Gordon can handle the busy load, though he’s unsure how many more weeks he will be needed as NASCAR’s most popular substitute. Earnhardt warned Monday that his return to NASCAR could take longer than planned. No decision has been made by Hendrick Motorsports about next week’s race at Watkins Glen.
With an off week following that, the smart move could involve benching Earnhardt at least one more race. Gordon, a four-time NASCAR champion who turns 45 on Thursday, would make his 800th career start at the Glen.
“It’s pretty cool that he has the opportunity to come out of retirement,” Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch said. “It’s neat to have him here, of course.”
Busch led the most laps last week at the Brickyard en route to his second straight Indy win. Gordon was 13th in his sentimental return to Indy.
“I never saw him on the racetrack,” Busch said.
Gordon could be more of a factor at Pocono, and maybe beyond. He starts 24th – his old car number that has since been yielded to Chase Elliott – in Sunday’s race.
“It’s even more odd that it went from one race to two races,” he said. “And then will it be more? I don’t know.”
Gordon and Earnhardt chat via FaceTime and Junior has offered some advice on the 88. Gordon has assured his one-time teammate that his recovery should be his only priority.
“Just get well at the pace that is the right pace to do it,” Gordon said. “Nobody is putting any pressure or time frame on that.”
Gordon battled through his own health woes over the second-half of his career, suffering in stretches from consistent, shooting back pain.
“I could fight through it longer if I had to. I prefer not to,” he said.
Gordon should be cashing in on the perks of retirement.
Imagine, Gordon at home dealing cards on the blackjack table presented by Las Vegas Motor Speedway while his gambling buddies take turns sipping from the 24 bottles of bourbon presented by Kentucky Speedway, or enjoying a perfect pour from an 18-liter wine bottle from Sonoma Raceway.
Outside, the Shetland ponies from Texas Motor Speedway are stabled nearby to the Bandolero car from Atlanta Motor Speedway.
OK, not quite.
Gordon was feted with dozens of retirement presents from tracks in 2015, and he’s too appreciative of the gestures to re-gift them to other friends. Most of the souvenirs are in storage.
“We haven’t done any blackjack and haven’t drank any whisky or wine or any of those things,” he said.
He paused and laughed, “Well, I mean I have; I drank plenty but it’s just not from the collection I was given as a gift.”
Gordon would surely make an exception if he could bust open a bottle of bubbly in victory lane on Sunday.
Gordon paused before he returned to the garage for a brief chat with track President Brandon Igdalsky (“ever been to the south of France?”) and opened the door where the crowd of pesky autograph seekers had grown.
They waved No. 24 diecasts and No. 24 hats and No. 24 photos in his face.
The fans should save their old memorabilia – he remained adamant that no authorized merchandise of Gordon in the 88 would be produced.
“I have too much respect for what Dale’s going through,” Gordon said.
Yes, Gordon’s return has created quite the buzz during a lazy summer NASCAR season, but it’s not forgotten the excitement has come at the expense of the health of NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“I like seeing him,” Igdalsky said as Gordon left, “but I wish I didn’t have to see him.”