Four time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon was finally back in a racecar Friday. Gordon is subbing for Dale Earnahrdt Jr. who missed the last race, and is expected to miss the next two with concussion like symptoms.
The Hendrick Motorsports team called on Gordon, who retired at the end of last season, to take over the No. 88 Chevy for those next two races, starting with this weekend’s events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The official announcement was made Wednesday. Friday morning, Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick met with the media. Later in the day however, Gordon got behind the wheel of a racecar for the first time since Homestead last November. Gordon said the experience wasn’t exactly as easy as riding a bike.
“No, I mean yes and no,” Gordon said. “When you get to drive a racecar like this it certainly just helps you focus on what you need to do out there. Being out of the car that long and not really having a lot of experience with this package it was a tall task, I will be honest. It was one of the most challenging days I’ve had in a race car to try to get comfortable, be consistent, have the speed and give good feedback. I mean I still love this track and I’m glad that we are doing this this weekend because I think that helps me have the confidence to be able to learn faster, but it’s tough. It was tough. That first run I was like ‘wow’ I forgot how hard of work this is.”
Gordon was able to prepare for his substitute role this past week. He spent some time with the Chevy simulator at the manufacturers facility in North Carolina. He also said that it hasn’t been so long away from a racecar that he has fallen out of shape physically.
“I feel good on being in shape,” Gordon said. “I mean they have come a long way on cooling the cars. I feel pretty good there. I mean I sweated it out pretty good today and feel good. I’m sure my back will be hurting when the day is over. “
“Yeah, the simulator was great,” he added. “Visually and the break marks and the way you drive the track and the way the car handled was very, very similar which I was very impressed with that. Obviously, real life is a lot tougher than in a simulator because you can scrape the wall, you can make mistakes and it’s not going to cost you a race car. Just knowing that is on the back of your mind and knowing that there is a lot of pressure out there that I put on myself to go out there and make the most out of the laps that we had which is a lot more challenging than the simulator.”
Next up for Gordon will be qualifying. Friday after practice he said he was as ready as he will ever be for Saturday’s qualifying session.
“Well, I will just walk you through our day a little bit,” Gordon said. “The first lap on the track was a good one. That was nice, but at the same time we were off on pace after that and needed a few tenths I felt like. Which when we went to make a qualifying or two qualifying runs, unfortunately we missed it a little bit so that didn’t go so well. But I felt like here in Happy Hour we made some really good gains in the car in race trim. I think that there are some of those things that will translate over to qualifying. The nice thing is the car has good speed and I actually ran the fastest lap of the day on that last run. That will help me, I think, for tomorrow’s qualifying session.”
Gordon got the call from team owner Hendrick while on vacation with his family in France. Had he been in the states for the New Hampshire race that was the first one Earnhardt, Gordon may have been behind the wheel a week earlier. But he wasn’t, so the team called upon young driver Alex Bowman. Friday, Gordon said he was glad he was no longer in France.
“France is good, but no this is very rewarding to be here to be a part of this race,” Gordon said. “To fulfill this position that … I will tell you what I’ve got a lot of appreciation for Alex Bowman. Whether you are a four-time champion and a five-time Brickyard 400 winner or the accomplishments that Alex has, I can’t imagine what he was going through at New Hampshire, because I know what I was going through today and it was a tremendous amount of pressure and anxiety. I’m glad we got through day one clean and looking forward to day two.”
Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson led opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice with a lap at 184.185 mph. Kyle Busch who spun in the first practice led the second with a speed of 184.619 mph. Gordon was ninth in the opening practice, and 25th in the second. Qualifying is scheduled for 1:45 p.m. ET Saturday.