Jeff Gordon will come out of retirement and drive the No. 88 car next weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway if Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not medically cleared to race, Doug Duchardt, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports said Friday.
Gordon, who retired after last season, is not available to drive for Earnhardt this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because he is in France with his wife.
“When Dale is ready, it’s his car to get back into, but if Dale can’t go next week, Jeff Gordon will be the driver at Indianapolis,” Duchardt said.
Gordon has won the Brickyard 400 a record five times.
Duchardt said that the team would probably need to know by Wednesday if Earnhardt can race next week at Indy. He did not state who might drive Earnhardt’s car beyond Indianapolis if Earnhardt is not cleared.
Earnhardt is not racing this weekend at New Hampshire because of “concussion-like symptoms.” He said in a statement Thursday that he did not feel well last weekend at Kentucky but thought it was allergies or a sinus infection.
Earnhardt notified Duchardt and crew chief Greg Ives on Tuesday that he still wasn’t feeling well and to make contingency plans for a backup driver. The team had Alex Bowman come into the shop to be fitted for a seat but Earnhardt still planned to race. It wasn’t until about noon Thursday, Duchardt said, that the team found out that Earnhardt would be out, putting Bowman into the seat for the weekend.
Earnhardt said in his statement Thursday that because of his symptoms, his history with concussions and recent wrecks at Michigan and Daytona, he met with a neurological specialist. After further evaluation, Earnhardt was told it would be best if he didn’t race this weekend.
“Nothing was said to us after Michigan or Daytona, so we didn’t know of anything until he started talking to Greg about not feeling quite right at Kentucky,” Duchardt said. “Tuesday was the first time he talked to me.
“I could tell that when he called me Tuesday, it was a tough conversation because I know for him, as much as he is doing the right thing and he knows he’s trying to do the right thing for himself, I know he feels bad for letting Greg and the team down but that’s just natural. That’s how any of us would feel.”
Duchardt also praised NASCAR’s Chase format and waiver system for allowing drivers to get out of the car when they don’t feel well.
“Before the Chase, missing a race basically meant you weren’t going to get a championship,” Duchardt said. “Now, NASCAR’s system has allowed you to take a step back if you’re not feeling well or something happened in an incident on the track, and then you can come and hopefully apply for a waiver when the time is right and hopefully still have a potential of moving forward.”
Duchardt said that per doctor’s order Earnhardt is “lying low like most people in these situations with minimum stimulation.”
No timetable has been set for Earnhardt’s return.
“I’m not going to speculate on Dale’s future,” Duchardt said. “The most important thing is for this process to play out for him to feel better. At the end of all of that, what is the right thing to do that will become clear when more knowledge is gained on how he’s feeling.”
A NASCAR official noted Friday that the series requires drivers to submit to a baseline neurocognitive assessment, such as an imPACT test to be licensed to compete. That allows doctors to monitor a driver’s recovery. For a competitor returning from a concussion or concussion-like symptoms, NASCAR must receive a notice from an independent board certified neurologist who has a minimum of five years in experience treating sports-related head injuries before the driver can again compete.
NASCAR has yet to meet with Earnhardt, who is now in the sport’s concussion protocol.
Earnhardt is 14th on the Chase grid and will drop after this weekend. The top 11 spots are taken by drivers with wins. Austin Dillon is one point behind Earnhardt. Jamie McMurray sits in the final transfer spot and enters the weekend 22 points behind Earnhardt. The team plans to seek a waiver, which will allow Earnhardt to be eligible for the Chase even though he will not have started every race.
This is the second time Earnhardt has missed races due to concussion symptoms. He missed two races during the 2012 Chase after crashes at Kansas (during a test) and Talladega within six weeks. Earnhardt also later admitted he raced with a concussion for about three months after a heavy impact April 28, 2002 at Auto Club Speedway. He was airlifted out of Dover International Speedway in September 2003 after briefly losing consciousness in a wreck but there was no concussion diagnosis.