Senior staff writer
Five-time Brickyard 400 champion Jeff Gordon will return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Sunday’s race as a possible replacement driver for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In an exclusive interview at Kentucky Speedway, Gordon said he was planning on only attending the race but not driving.
All that changed late last week.
Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Douchardt said Gordon would replace Earnhardt at the Brickyard if Earnhardt’s concussion-like syndrome suffered in crashes at Daytona and Michigan continued.
“If Dale is not ready to go in Indianapolis, we will put Jeff Gordon in the car,” Duchardt said at a press conference at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Obviously, when Dale is ready, it’s his car to get back into. But if Dale can’t go, Jeff Gordon will be the driver in Indianapolis.”
When news of Gordon’s possible return spread, Hoosier driver Ryan Newman said Gordon would have no problem getting up to speed at the 2.5-mile oval.
Newman drew laughter from the motor sports press corps at New Hampshire by saying, “Yeah, just because you go to the nude beach for a couple of months doesn’t mean you don’t know how to put your underwear back on.”
Earnhardt finished 13th July 9 in a 400-mile race at Kentucky Speedway but was examined recently and was replaced by Alex Bowman in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
If Gordon races Sunday, it would be his first NASCAR competition since stepping from the No. 24 Chevrolet last year, ending a spectacular 24-year career that included four Sprint Cup championships, 93 wins in 797 starts, 81 poles, 24,929 laps led and $153.7 million in winnings.
Douchardt said the team would have to make a final decision today, pending a neurological evaluation of Earnhardt. Either way, Gordon plans on being at the Brickyard.
The adopted Hoosier – born in California but raised in nearby Pittsboro – spent the first half of the Sprint Cup season as a rookie commentator during race telecasts on Fox. The network’s split-season contract does not include the Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard.
Life has changed. He gained 10 pounds after the season ended, and he spent the Fourth of July weekend at home with his family in New York City. He would like to do more TV shows as a host. And the first authorized biography of his life – “Jeff Gordon: His Dream, Drive and Destiny,” by Joe Garner – is to be released in October.
Gordon, a graduate of Tri-West High School near Pittsboro, will be 45 Aug. 4. He and wife, model Ingrid Vandebosch, were vacationing in France last week with their children, Ella and Leo.
At Kentucky Speedway Gordon re-emphasized the time was right to step from behind the steering wheel to the microphone. “I love the transition from the car,” he said. “I was ready to step away from driving but not racing. It has been a perfect transition.”
He drew laughter from hundreds of fans assembled in the infield at Kentucky Speedway when he talked about his broadcasting career.
“If you’ve ever watched any of the Fox telecasts, you’ve never heard in my voice any bias – except Keselowski,” Gordon said after expressing his admiration for rookie driver Chase Elliott’s progress in the No. 24 Chevrolet this season.
He spent several minutes talking about Tony Stewart’s comeback from a serious back injury in an offseason dune buggy accident to his recent Sprint Cup win on the Sonoma (Calif.) road course. Gordon was among participants who urged Stewart to take part in the dune buggy rides.
“To see him go through one of the best of times to the worst was difficult, but it was amazing to see him come out of it,” Gordon said. “It was hard not to be a Tony Stewart fan that day (Sonoma) – you can never count him out.”
He also reflected upon his career and Stewart’s career, noting that they came into NASCAR at about the same time and that their careers parallel each other. Gordon admitted that they are different personalities.
Gordon also revealed that he intends to race again but not in Sprint Cup. “I love racing. There are other series that I’ve enjoyed watching and that I would like to try.”