By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
The news we expected came down Wednesday. Hendrick Motorsports announced that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss at least the next two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races while he continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms.
This will undoubtedly drop Earnhardt from Chase contention, and upon his return, Earnhardt will have to hope for a health waiver from NASCAR (which should be awarded) at which point he will then have to win a race before the end of the regular season if he wants to Chase his first Sprint Cup Series championship this year. But even with the uphill battle of Earnhardt’s championship hopes, there is still plenty on the line for the No. 88 team and interim driver, Jeff Gordon over the next two races.
For Gordon, a shot at a sixth win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway awaits the 44 year old driver this weekend. Only Gordon and Michael Schumacher have recorded five victories at the historic speedway in major motorsport competition. A win this weekend, would put Gordon even further into legendary territory than he already currently stands.
Gordon also could bolster his career win total, which sits at 93 heading into his (at least) two-race stint behind the wheel of the No. 88 car.
But Gordon’s personal accolades are just part of the story.
Many are already expecting that If Gordon is leading late in either of the next two races and he is being chased by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kasey Kahne or Chase Elliott — who haven’t won yet in 2016 — that he’ll simply pull over and let them cruise into the Chase.
Yes, Gordon has been described in the past as a company man, and the Chase has been manipulated by teams in the past, but don’t expect Gordon to roll over for anyone. As a company man, he also has to think about the No. 88 team as well.
The team is still searching for its first win of the season, and if it can accomplish that in Earnhardt’s absence then a championship isn’t out of the question for the No. 88 group. NASCAR’s Senior Manager of Content Communications, Mike Forde confirmed to Motorsports Tribune that if Gordon can notch a win in the No. 88 Chevrolet then the team will secure a spot in the NASCAR owner championship Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Each season, the owner championship is contested with the exact same Chase format as the driver championship. Usually there isn’t much difference in both standings as drivers usually compete the entire schedule, and when they don’t the replacement drivers usually don’t reach victory lane. However a Gordon win can certainly give the No. 88 team something to race for, regardless of how Earnhardt competes initially when he returns from injury.