Darrell Waltrip on Jeff Gordon’s return: I’m jealous

Darrell Waltrip talks about the ups and downs of leaving the race car for the television booth as Jeff Gordon laughs during the NASCAR 2016 Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour on January 19, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Bob Leverone / NASCAR via Getty Images)

Darrell Waltrip talks about the ups and downs of leaving the race car for the television booth as Jeff Gordon laughs during the NASCAR 2016 Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour on January 19, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Bob Leverone / NASCAR via Getty Images)

On Wednesday Hendrick Motorsports announced that four-time NASCAR Cup champion and FOX NASCAR analyst Jeff Gordon will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and next weekend at Pocono Raceway in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is suffering from concussion-like symptoms.

Earnhardt missed the New Hampshire race after he was evaluated in Charlotte last Thursday and was not cleared by physicians to race.  Alex Bowman was tapped to drive Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy and finished 26th.

The team said Earnhardt underwent further evaluation Tuesday at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. The driver said this week on his “The Dale Jr. Download” podcast that he has been experiencing issues with balance and nausea. He will not travel to Indianapolis or Pocono.

Former driver and two time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip is Gordon’s fellow analyst at Fox. The two were present in the TV booth for the first half of the 2016 NASCAR season.  Wednesday shortly after the Hendrick announcement, Waltrip talked about Gordon and his chances this weekend.

“It truly wouldn’t surprise me one bit for (Jeff Gordon) to grab that 94th Sprint Cup victory at Indy that he thought he’d never see just a few short months ago,” Waltrip said.

Waltrip said he has talked to Gordon about how difficult it might be to come out of retirement. Gordon’s last race at Homestead last November.

“I have talked to him since he found out he will drive the No. 88 at Indianapolis,” Waltrip said. “His willingness to fill in for Dale Jr. shows the loyalty, commitment and friendship he has with Rick Hendrick.”

“If Rick called me and told me he needed me to drive any of his four cars, I’d do it in a heartbeat — and I’ll be 70 in February — not because I want to but because he asked me,” he added.  “That’s the loyalty Jeff has to Rick.”

Gordon has five wins at Indy, the last coming just two years ago.

“Jeff will be just fine in the No. 88,” Waltrip said.  “He will compete at a high level, just like he ended his career in 2015.  He’s only been out the car for a few months and has been at the track every week and around that team.  He’s the winningest driver at Indy, and it’s his home track.  If he was going to choose to run a race, it would probably be this one.  He’s very enthusiastic about doing it and hasn’t been dragged into it at all.”

Waltrip added is a bit envious.  Gordon will return from his retirement and compete in one of the most competitive cars in NASCAR.

“I told Jeff, ‘I want you to do it because I know you will do a great job and probably can win the race,’ “ Waltrip said. “But I also told him I’m jealous because I would have loved the opportunity to get in a car like that the last year of my career or even a year or two after I retired.  If someone had asked me back then if I’d get in a car capable of winning a race, I would have said ‘yes’ in a heartbeat. That’s a no-brainer for a driver. I’m pretty sure Jeff is going into Indy thinking he can and will win that race.”

He said he expects Gordon to perform well at Indianapolis after being out of a racecar since the 2015 season finale in November.

“It truly wouldn’t surprise me one bit for him to grab that 94th Sprint Cup victory at Indy that he thought he’d never see just a few short months ago,” he said. “Back when we had the Prelude to the Dream at Eldora Speedway, Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds and I were calling the race.  Jeff came up there and hadn’t been in a dirt car in a number of years.  The first time he went out to practice, he was way off the pace.  I commented to Mike and Larry that he would be lost that night in the race. Well, he went out for the second practice and went to the top of the board.  He might take a few practice laps to get comfortable in the No. 88 car, but it shouldn’t be a problem at all. He should be a contender at Pocono, as well.”

Waltrip too has missed races. He missed five in 1990 due to injury, so he is fully aware of what Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going through.

“The hardest thing I ever had to do was watch someone else drive my car,” Waltrip said.  “You stand on the sidelines in anguish. Sitting out is very trying for a driver, particularly when you know you probably could drive but just not at 100-percent. “

“That’s what most impresses me about Dale Jr.’s decision — he probably could have gone to New Hampshire and Indy this weekend but likely wouldn’t have felt that he could give a full effort to his team,” he added. “But that’s the beautiful thing about the Chase and the exemptions drivers can get to compete for the championship.  He can sit out a few weeks, if needed, feel better, come back and win a race, be in the top 30 in points and still make the Chase. It’s the toughest thing a driver will ever have to do, but it’s the easiest thing they can do today based on these exemption circumstances.”

For the first time in his long career, Gordon will be racing against his former team. Chase Elliott was given the famed No. 24 car Gordon raced throughout his Cup career.

“When he has to race against the No. 24 this weekend, that will be a really weird feeling because the only car he ever drove was the 24,” Waltrip said. “To climb in another car and compete against your old car — I can’t imagine what that must feel like, but it’s probably one of those surreal, out-of-body experiences.”

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