MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Autographing a bank of bulbs that soon will illuminate the oldest track in NASCAR’s premier series made Jeff Gordon chuckle Friday.
“I might have to come back for lights at Martinsville,” he said with a sly smile.
The four-time series champion already has returned more times than he or anyone else would have believed after his ‘retirement” last season.
Summoned to duty behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet while Dale Earnhardt Jr. recovers from the effects of a concussion, Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway will mark the last of eight starts this year for Gordon as an interim driver.
But will his 805th Sprint Cup start also be the last of his career?
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Gordon, who qualified 10th Friday. “I can promise you I had no intentions of this happening, but here I am.
“Never say never is all I know what to say. I really don’t think that I will be getting back in the Cup car again, but go ask (team owner) Rick Hendrick. That really has more to do with him than anything else. I hope in the future that the drivers don’t have a situation like what we had with Junior where they need somebody to fill in for them. This little bit of experience has been kind of good for me, good for the organization and we have had a little bit of fun with it as well. If I had to do it, then certainly I would, but I don’t anticipate it.”
Before retiring, Gordon had targeted Martinsville, where he has a series-best nine wins, as a potentially optimum place for a one-off return. But he was slightly wary after scoring his most recent win here last Nov. 1 (which qualified him for the championship round in his 23rd and final season).
“I love this track,” the 45-year-old said. “Obviously, I have amazing memories from this race last year. I guess there was a part of me that wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back and take away from that, but at the same time I’ve always said if there is one track that I feel like I could get back in the car and feel comfortable and competitive it’s this track. For that I’m happy that I’m here.”
He made his 2016 return to the cockpit of a Hendrick Motorsports car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he scored the first of a record five wins in the 1994 inaugural race.
“Of course there wasn’t much hesitation from me when that occurred because I love Indianapolis, and the track has been amazing,” he said. “I didn’t hesitate one bit, but it was a tall challenge when I got there. It was really tough. Things didn’t go as well as any of us had hoped.”
Gordon said the 2,071 laps he has raced this season have been worth it, though, helping improve Hendrick’s Chevys while also improving his knowledge as a Fox Sports analyst.
“I was kind of happy to do more, sad about the situation, but if they needed me I wanted to do a little bit more to get more comfortable with the team and the cars,” he said. “I wanted to drive the cars with less downforce this year and see what it was like. Does me a lot of good when I get back in the Fox booth to kind of connect those dots and was a great experience. Each time I’ve been in the car, I feel like I’ve gotten better and better at giving the feedback that they need.”