By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
SPEEDWAY, Ind. – When Jeff Gordon saw the two-word text from Rick Hendrick, he knew he’d better sit down to call his former boss.
“Call me,” Hendrick texted to the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, who was vacationing in the south of France.
“If I can scroll through my phone and look at the texts that I’ve gotten from Rick that said “Call me,” I can tell you that you sit down when you call him on those instances,” Gordon said on Friday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When Gordon heard the purpose of the call, that Hendrick wanted him to substitute for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday’s Crown Royal 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), his initial reaction was that Hendrick was joking.
“Rick said to me, ‘Are you coming to Indianapolis?’” Gordon recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, I am. I’m coming on Saturday.’ He said, ‘You’d better bring your uniform.’…
“Honestly, I didn’t even have to think twice about it. When Rick calls and has that confidence in me and asks me to step up and do something for the organization, whether it’s as a driver or other responsibilities … after everything he’s done for me, the way the organization’s been there for me over the years—I certainly didn’t anticipate this.”
Even if concussion-like symptoms hadn’t sidelined Earnhardt from the No. 88 Chevrolet, Gordon would have been in a car at Indianapolis—as a celebrity pace car driver.
But the five-time Brickyard winner will put those plans on hold until next year, as he competes for the first time against the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet he drove for 23 years—a car now piloted by Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader Chase Elliott.
The nuts and bolts of putting Gordon into Earnhardt’s car didn’t constitute a turnkey operation. Fortunately, HMS had archived the seat and steering wheel Gordon had used in what was supposed to be his final Sprint Cup race, last year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But Gordon had never used a digital dashboard, which is the standard on Sprint Cup cars this year, so immediately after his return to the United States on Tuesday, he visited the Hendrick shop and began tweaking the array of gauges and lights on the digital dash.
Nor has Gordon driven the current competition package at Indianapolis. When the Sprint Cup series raced at the Brickyard last year, it was with an experimental high-drag package with a large spoiler, a configuration that was not incorporated into the 2016 rules.
So Gordon studied film and throttle traces from the 2014 event, which produced his fifth victory at Indy.
“I kind of like ’14—it was a good year,” Gordon said.
He conferred extensively with crew chief Greg Ives and team engineers. He studied GoPro video from a test at Indy that featured Elliott and Jimmie Johnson.
“Then I took that information and went to the simulator the next morning in Huntersville (N.C.) with GM (General Motors/Chevrolet), and they put those set-ups and this aero package in the car in the simulator, and I was able to drive it. …
“They’ve advanced a lot. I thought that and I’ll be able to verify that (in Friday’s practice) that it was very close. Much closer than in the past of the braking points, turn-in points, car handling, all those types of things. I’m hoping that really pays off for me.”
From NASCAR’s perspective, Gordon had to satisfy three requirements before he could return to a Sprint Cup car. He had to pass a physical, pass a drug test and have a current baseline impact test. Gordon satisfied all three requirements.
How long he’ll remain in the car remains an open question. Gordon is scheduled to drive Sunday at the Brickyard and a week later at Pocono. Beyond that, he preferred not to speculate. On Friday morning, Earnhardt posted encouraging news on his Twitter account, saying:
“Today is the 1st day in many that I sensed improvement. Seen small gains during my physical therapy as well. Light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Right now it’s through Pocono,” Gordon said. “We were very encouraged by Dale Jr.’s tweet today and comments and the way he is feeling and hope that continues to progress and that he is back as soon as possible. …
“We just want him to be there when he is ready and when the doctors say he is ready. I will do whatever I need to do, but I’m also thinking ‘What is going to get the team the most points and give them the best opportunity to advance into the Chase?’ You’ve got the two sides, the owner and the driver side of (the Chase).”
Gordon also revealed on Friday that he had been approached about replacing injured Tony Stewart in this year’s Daytona 500 but had to decline because of his commitments as a booth analyst for FOX Sports.
But with the FOX portion of the season behind him, Gordon will make his 798th Sprint Cup start on Sunday, in a race he never dreamed he would drive.