DARLINGTON, S.C. – Jeff Gordon had a “Welcome to Darlington Raceway” moment in Southern 500 practice Saturday, but this wasn’t the rude awakening the track has delivered to many NASCAR newcomers.
For the seven-time winner at the 1.366-mile oval (twice as many victories as any active driver), this was more surreal daydream than shock to the system.
“I had something happen to me today that’s never happened in my whole career,” Gordon said with a smile after the final Sprint Cup practice. “I’m out there running laps, and I had a moment where I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m out here at Darlington. What in the world am I doing here at Darlington?’
“But it was a cool moment. I was excited about it. So things are going well. I’m having fun here.”
Sunday’s race will mark the fifth for Gordon (who was 14th fastest in both rescheduled practices Saturday) in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is out for the rest of the season while recovering from a concussion. Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday the No. 88 Chevrolet will be split for the final 12 races between Alex Bowman and Gordon.
The four-time series champion will race Earnhardt’s car in the next two races at Darlington and Richmond International Raceway before turning the car over to Bowman for eight of the last 10 races. Gordon will race again at Dover International Speedway and Martinsville Speedway – tracks where he has combined for 14 victories.
Though the schedule lines up well with his strengths, Gordon said it wasn’t solely set by his preference. Bowman will race New Hampshire Motor Speedway because he already filled in for Earnhardt there in July. Because of schedule conflicts, Gordon can’t race at some 1.5-mile tracks, so it made more sense to keep Bowman at all of them.
“It’d be best for the team for him to be in all of those,” Gordon said. “We know he’s a talented driver, too, and want to see what he’s capable of doing. He does a lot of work in the simulator for us. Matching up actual race data and conditions to the simulator helps us develop the simulator, too.”
Making the schedule was a collaborative effort involving input from multiple sources.
“It’s a combination of what’s best for the team, what’s best for the sponsors and sort of Junior’s wishes as well,” Gordon said. “He’s big on Alex Bowman, and the team has really enjoyed having him in the car. We want to make sure our sponsors are getting everything out of it as well. They do a lot for us.
“So if I can help them on or off the track, or Junior do the same thing when he’s not in the car. And then Alex, the same thing. Everyone has enjoyed having him in the car. I was just happy to do whatever they wanted me to do, but when we knew this was coming, we sat down and looked at the tracks and thought about what was best for everybody.”
Earnhardt’s misfortune will give Gordon a chance to defend his Nov. 1, 2015 victory at Martinsville that seemed the last of his career after his 2015 retirement.
“When you leave there as a winner, you kind of don’t want to mess that up, but it’s also a track that I like a lot, and I feel confident at,” he said. “Depending on how this all goes with owner points, I’m hoping that we can be in a similar position to what we were last year from an owners point standpoint and go do something special there.”
Earnhardt’s car currently is eligible for the owners championship in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. If the car qualifies and advances to the third round, a repeat win at Martinsville would advance the car to the championship.
Gordon is a nine-time winner at the 0.526-mile oval, which he had singled out for potential one-off starts in retirement.
Could he win?
“I don’t see why we couldn’t,” he said. “It’s not about aerodynamics as much. I think our power is really good. We won there last year, and I don’t think a lot has changed other than less spoiler and splitter.
“The question is were we the best car there at that time? (Joey) Logano was pretty good. I felt I had something for him on the long run, but we didn’t know. So to me, I think we’ve got to be a little better than we were last year if we’re going to win this year.”
That would be a boost to a No. 88 crew that has weathered uncertainty for nearly two months.
“This team cares about Junior so much,” Gordon said. “They love him. They want him back. They’re handling it amazing. They really are.
“They’re in a really tough situation because not only is Junior not coming back this year, but they’ve got two different drivers they’ve got to work with, but they’ve handled it amazing. Their demeanor and attitude about it has been phenomenal. It’s really been a great experience for me, because I’ve spent so much time with the No. 24 team over the last 23 years, that going into the shop of the (Nos.) 48-88 guys, spending time with (crew chief) Greg (Ives), it’s been great for my new role at Hendrick. It’s allowed me to bond with those guys as well as the bond I have with my guys and see kind of how the teams work separately and together.”