INDIANAPOLIS – There are the freshly flashing lights of the digital dash, unfamiliar voices on the team radio, and the strangeness of a No. 88 stall instead of a No. 24.
But aside from everything that will seem new for Jeff Gordon about ending an eighth-month retirement this weekend, there is one comforting element.
“I knew it was Indianapolis,” he said Friday morning. “I felt like if there was one place that I was capable of doing it, it would be here.”
Gordon will start the next two races in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms.
Though it will have been more than 230 days since he raced a Sprint Cup car, the four-time series champion has a record five victories at the Brickyard, starting with NASCAR’s inaugural visit in 1994.
How will he fare and what will be his biggest challenges? Here’s what his peers have said about their expectations for Gordon’s return:
Kevin Harvick: “Obviously, he’s Jeff Gordon, so he’s probably going to do better than most. I think as you look at the competitiveness of everyone on a week-to-week basis. It’s really hard to get to that level of getting the last couple of tenths out of the car and being on top of your game. And with the new dash. I think it’s really hard to gather all those little things. I think he’ll be able to drive the car and do the things he needs to do. But to go fast, it’s all the little things that you think about on a daily basis that we do week after week that will be the hardest. But driving it won’t be a problem.
“I think he definitely can be competitive for sure. I think the first thing he’s going to figure out is the cars are a lot hotter than they used to be.”
Ryan Newman: “I would have to say the (toughest) thing that comes to mind would be people. I mean they have a lot of good people obviously at Hendrick Motorsports but just working with the personalities that he has only seen from the outside, so to speak. He has worked with (crew chief) Greg Ives. He has worked with those guys he knows a lot of people on the team, but now they are responsible for him, and he is responsible for them. I think that when it comes to making strategy calls, trying to miss the cone when you are committing to pit road on those types of situations when it’s last second, that past experience pays a lot. You’ve got to get the inflection of somebody’s voice is all it takes sometimes to make you own the answers or make you own decisions. I think that with a big race like this, with different strategies and fuel mileage that something as simple as that could be one of the biggest hurdles so to speak.
““He has the best stats of anybody or as good of stats as anybody here at this racetrack as far as top-five’s and top 10’s. I think that he is driving the same equipment. It’s not like he’s in somebody else’s race car. He knows what he’s driving, he knows the people he is driving for, so I don’t see any reason why he is not one of the guys to beat. I mean he has always been that guy here and has more wins than anybody. I don’t know that it matters a whole lot that it’s the No. 88 vs. the No. 24. I think it’s no different than it was last year.
“Just getting a feel for the car and the tire (will be the most difficult part). He has experienced this rule package last year. It’s not like it is totally different to him but just getting a good feel and balance for the car is what we all try to do. He probably has that feel better than most with his stats, but it doesn’t mean it comes easy.”
Kyle Busch: “It takes you a few weeks to get back into the rhythm of things and into the game of things. It did for me. I missed 11 weeks last year, and it took probably about four or five weeks to kind of get back into the rhythm of things and figuring it all out and just getting focused on becoming a race car driver again. The heat is certainly going to be a huge thing probably for Jeff (Gordon). Again, just not being conditioned for the heat and used to the heat of what it’s been, and we’ve had a couple of hot races already this year. We definitely get more experience at that and more opportunities to feel that each week that we’re in it.
“He could (win). He could surprise us all. He could win, but realistically I feel like top-10 for sure. I feel like he could be pretty good enough to just kind of jump back in and be ready to finish to top-10 right away. I feel like top-five is probably what’s expected maybe, but getting a win, that’s high expectations.”
Jimmie Johnson: “I guess the people part (is the biggest challenge). He has so many laps in a race car, and so many laps here, The (digital) dash, they can move it and change it out however they would like. Once the excitement of being on the track the first time goes away, and the butterflies subside, he’ll be out there and do just fine. I don’t see it being difficult for him. Sure, maybe a little rusty when he gets started, but once he gets in the flow of things, his last interaction with a crew chief was Alan (Gustafson). I think it is really his first time working with Greg (Ives). So I think it is more people-related leading to what he ultimately wants which is to win here. I think he is going to have a great experience. He is going to be fast, and competitive. All of that. But to really find that last little bit, I think is more in relationships and building those relationships in a hurry.”
Tony Stewart: “Nothing for him. I say that because he can handle all of this. The digital dash is a non-event for him. If we were at Bristol or Martinsville or something, it would be a little tougher, but you have long straightaways here. He’s been in the simulator. He has the information. He knows where it is at on the dash now, and he has plenty of time on each straightaway to find what he is looking for. It won’t be any problem for him. I can promise you getting back in a car will be like he never got out of a car. He will be fine.”