By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
After being retired for eight months, it was almost inconceivable that even Jeff Gordon — a four-time Sprint Cup Series champion — could strap back into a Sprint Cup Series car at a track as challenging as Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and still be competitive. Yet, Gordon drove a smart race all day long and had a shot at a top-10 finish Sunday, before settling for 13th in his first race substituting for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Gordon started the day from the 21st position, and for the first half of the race he was basically a non-factor as he struggled with a tight handling condition on his No. 88 racecar.
However, crew chief Greg Ives called Gordon to pit road early with just over 70 laps remaining in the race. As a result of short-pitting under this sequence of green flag pit stops, Gordon went from a 17th-place racecar to running 12th, with a legitimate shot at a top-10 finish.
A rash of caution periods in the closing stages of the race really ruined any shot Gordon had at a top-10 or more, as he was lined up on the dreaded outside line for just about every double-file restart.
“It didn’t go very well and it was a fight. Wow,” Gordon said after climbing from the No. 88 car. “The challenges to be out there against the best, especially on those restarts; I got my butt kicked on those restarts. It was embarrassing. While I will fill-in for Dale Jr., and I hope he’s doing good, I needed a fill-in on restarts. It was pretty bad. Other than that, I thought it went really well.”
Despite being mired back in the pack again as a result of restarts, Gordon, in a mad dash on the final restart of the day flexed his muscles and went from 17th to 13th as the checkered flag was displayed.
As the race concluded, and race-winner Kyle Busch did his victory burnouts, Gordon and Tony Stewart did a victory lap in front of the crowd. This race also marked what should be Stewart’s final Brickyard 400. Gordon reflected on the special post-race moment with his former rival, and great friend.
“Well, Tony and I have gone through a lot over the years. But, he and I have become really good friends. I was with him when he got hurt this year. And to see what he’s done and how tough he is as a competitor; I’ve always know what a great guy and what a great race car driver he is, and now I know more about who Tony Stewart really is,” Gordon stated emotionally. “I’m just so proud that I was able to be here and race with him in his final race. Maybe, I don’t know. I thought last year was going to be my final race. You never know with Tony Stewart. But it meant a lot to me to be able to stand in front at the driver’s meeting and recognize him and then do that pace lap here at the end.”
After an admirable finish in his first substitute effort for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team, Gordon will be behind the wheel at least one more time next week at Pocono Raceway while Earnhardt still attempts to recover from concussion-like symptoms that were likely sustained after crashes at Michigan in late June and Daytona in early July.
While Earnhardt has currently slipped 11 points outside of the Chase Grid after missing the past two races, Gordon has helped keep the No. 88 team in the thick of the Owner Championship hunt.
After Indianapolis, the No. 88 team holds the 15th position in the Owner Championship Chase Grid, 32 points ahead of the 17th-place No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Team. If the No. 88 team can stay inside the Owner Championship Chase Grid through the end of Richmond, they will have a shot at a championship of some kind if Earnhardt can’t rebound to make the driver championship Chase when he returns.
After more than 400 miles of racing on Sunday, Gordon joked that he hopes Earnhardt returns sooner rather than later for his own sake.
“My thing is that I can’t wait to talk to Dale Junior and debrief him on how today went and see how he’s doing,” Said Gordon. “I want him in the car as soon as possible. I’m too old to be doing this stuff. But to come here and do this race and finish a decent 13th, I think I can do better next week for him and then we’ll just go from there.”