Ryan: Dale Jr. substitution shows Jeff Gordon remains a team player at Hendrick Motorsports

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INDIANAPOLIS – Jeff Gordon’s return to NASCAR this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway deservedly will draw all of the comparisons to legendary athletes who returned from retirements of varied brevity.

Michael Jordan. Brett Favre. Michael Schumacher.

There’s an important distinction with Gordon, though.

He never really left the team for which he played his entire career anyway.

If you’re looking for the best parallel, it’s probably Mario Lemieux, who took three years off from the NHL but actually bought the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1998 before returning to play for his team in 2000.

While Gordon moved into the FOX Sports booth as an analyst this season, he remains an equity owner of Hendrick Motorsports, which has listed him as the co-owner of Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet since its 2002 inception. Though Gordon has no official role or title (and though he vowed to be objective at FOX and make his multiyear contract with the network a priority), he has remained privy to the team’s inner workings.

He won’t be returning to Hendrick at the Brickyard. The four-time champion just happens to be sliding behind the wheel again Friday.

His allegiance to the team hardly has waned since he exited the No. 24 Chevrolet last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Wednesday’s announcement that he would replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. was further evidence Gordon remains virtually as integral to Hendrick as during his 23-year career behind the wheel.

It’s the subtext to why Brad Keselowski was miffed at Gordon’s comments after a Team Penske pit stop last month at Pocono Raceway. Keselowski is among many in the NASCAR industry who believe a larger role eventually could await Gordon at Hendrick – perhaps even running the organization for team owner Rick Hendrick, who recently turned 67 and has hinted at scaling back his presence in the future.

The ease in which Gordon was named as Earnhardt’s standby for Indianapolis– via general manager Doug Duchardt’s deadpan delivery and rapid-fire answer to a question in a news conference last Friday — caught many by surprise, but it was indicative of how Gordon’s strong ties to the team make it seamless to execute the kind of driver swap that often is fraught with inherent complications.

There was no haggling over contractual obligations or salary as there might have been if Hendrick was in the market for an available veteran. It was as simple as Hendrick calling Gordon and asking him to bring his firesuit to Indy just in case.

Given how invested he is at Hendrick, it’s overly simplistic to view Gordon’s return as merely a superstar hopping back into a car.

Think of this more akin to a company manager backfilling for an ailing employee’s absence.

In the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway, the last started by Earnhardt before stepping out of the No. 88 Chevy with concussion symptoms, Gordon sat atop Johnson’s pit box during the 400-mile race.

While further proving his commitment to Hendrick, it also served as subtle affirmation that Earnhardt and the team had nary a clue he might miss time behind the wheel until he visited a neurologist last week after the Kentucky race.

If there had been an inkling that Earnhardt had been feeling so ill that he couldn’t answer the bell at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, would Gordon have departed on a vacation in the south of France?

Or might we be talking about the Brickyard as Gordon’s second consecutive start in the No. 88?

“Jeff’s a team player,” Hendrick said in a Wednesday release.

For one team in particular, Gordon always has been. Wednesday’s news further proved he always will be.