INDIANAPOLIS — “Oh boy.’’
Jeff Gordon uttered those words to his wife as they vacationed in the South of France when he received a text from car owner Rick Hendrick.
So began a journey that brought Gordon back to the United States and quickly to Hendrick Motorsports to prepare for his first Sprint Cup race since last year’s season finale in Miami.
Gordon will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and next weekend at Pocono Raceway for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms.
“There are certainly going to be challenges this weekend, but I feel like I am capable of doing it,’’ Gordon said. “Rick and the whole team have given me a lot of confidence in myself by choosing me and asking me to do this. I questioned Mr. H several times when he was asking me on the phone about this. That confidence that they have in me and then to go spend time with the team, Dale has a great team, I’m so impressed with Greg Ives and everybody at the No. 88 team.’’
While it will be jarring for fans to see Gordon drive a car other than the No. 24 — he’s never driven any other car number in 797 previous Sprint Cup starts — Gordon is more focused on all that he has to do this week.
He’s not worked with Ives since Ives has become a crew chief. Gordon has not raced this aero package at Indianapolis (last year teams raced a high-drag package). Gordon has not raced with the digital dashboard, which is new this year. Gordon didn’t even have a NASCAR driver’s license — he had only an owner’s license. He also had to get his NASCAR physical to be eligible to drive.
Gordon said after landing Tuesday in New York City, car owner Rick Hendrick had a plane waiting to take him to Concord, North Carolina, so he could be at the team’s shop. Gordon spent the evening with the team.
Hendrick Motorsports still had Gordon’s seat from his final race last year and put it in Earnhardt’s car.
Gordon’s homework included examining test data from Indianapolis this year, watching video from inside the car during the test. Gordon reviewed notes from the 2014 race — his record fifth win of this race — since last year’s race had a much different aero package.
Gordon took that information and the car’s setup and tested in a GM simulator.
While Gordon will drive for Earnhardt the next two races, how much longer is prepared to go?
“Let’s not speculate,’’ Gordon said. “Right now, it’s through Pocono. We’re very, very encouraged by Dale Jr.’s tweet today and comments and the way he’s feeling and hope that continues to progress and he’s back as soon as possible.
“The one thing I was encouraged by when I saw him Wednesday is his passion for racing. Like Rick said he’s getting antsy, he wants to get back in there. We just want him there when he’s ready and when the doctors say he’s ready.
“I’ll do whatever I need to do.’’
Gordon said his goal is to help the team score as many points as possible to make the Chase for the owners title. Both the drivers and owners title has a playoff format. Should Earnhardt not make the Chase, the No. 88 car could still be eligible for the owner championship.