LONG POND, Pa. — As Dale Earnhardt Jr. preaches patience in his recovery from concussion-like symptoms, Jeff Gordon stated Friday at Pocono that he looks as his fill-in role for Earnhardt as “a very temporary thing.’’
This weekend marks Gordon’s second consecutive race for Earnhardt, who is missing his third race in a row. No decision has been announced on who will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet next weekend at Watkins Glen International. Earnhardt is expected to provide an update on his status Monday, although a decision on who will drive the car could come later in the week.
Gordon has said he’s there for as long as Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports needs him but there could be other considerations. Gordon has had back issues in recent years, including 2014 when spasms nearly forced him out of the car for the Coca-Cola 600.
Asked if his back could impact how many more races he runs — provided he’s needed — Gordon said: “I fought through it the last few years, and I can fight through it longer if I had to. I prefer not to. I’m looking at this as a very temporary thing.’’
Gordon admits he felt sore after Sunday’s race.
“Definitely, my body, the muscles that I haven’t used in a while were on fire Monday and Tuesday,’’ Gordon said. “Even activities that I do, had been doing over the last several months that are more outdoor activities, not a lot of in-the-gym type stuff, doesn’t light my back up like being in the race car.’’
Gordon said he received texts from other drivers checking on how he was doing this week, noting Gordon made his return at what has been the hottest race of the season.
“I’ve been quite surprised, honestly, with how it’s gone,’’ Gordon said of his recovery. “The hydration system that I had for years in the car, the cooling system upgrades they had … did its job. I didn’t get any cramping. I did get hot.’’
His focus is keeping the car in contention for the owners Chase, helping the organization diagnose its fleet and lift the spirits of Earnhardt’s team.
“I think just trying to keep the excitement and spark in the team and make sure in a time like this that they don’t get down, that you keep them up, keep them motivated for when Dale comes back,’’ Gordon said.
He likes what he’s seen from the team. Gordon finished 13th last weekend at Indianapolis in his first race since last year’s season finale in Miami.
“They had great pit stops last week,’’ Gordon said of Earnhardt’s pit crew. “I felt like from a team standpoint — and I told Dale this — he should be really, really proud. The’ve got a great team. What I make sure I do is give them the results that they deserve.
“I don’t know if I’m quite there yet. Just like last week, over the runs during the race I felt like I started getting comfortable being in the position to give them what the car was capable of. We need to start further forward, better track position.’’
Gordon is looking to improve upon last weekend’s finish. He’s the winningest driver in Cup history at Pocono with six victories. He knows it will be challenging. Before Indy, he could view video from testing and had time to get into a simulator. There were no tests at Pocono this year and Gordon didn’t make it to the simulator this week.
“I do have confidence at this track,’’ Gordon said. “And I’ve gained confidence from running the race last week. And with the team, I feel comfortable with all them. But when you’re not in the car week in and week out and going through that process on a regular basis, it’s hard to get into a rhythm. It’s hard to be smooth and be consistent. And so that’s what I’m seeing right now. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good feel for the grip level of the car, so then it comes down to getting the balance right.
“But, because of the inconsistencies there … trying to understand how deep can I drive into the corner? Do I need to back-up the entry? Do I need to arc it a little bit more with this aero package? There are a few little details that are different in the way the cars drive and just how the teams have advanced with the set-ups and the geometry to maximize this package makes the cars drive slightly different than they have in the past. And so for me, I’m out there trying to gain that confidence and consistency back, and then I’m also trying to evaluate the car to give them feedback on how we can make it go faster. It’s not easy, I can tell you that.’’