INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jeff Gordon always expected to be at this weekend’s Brickyard 400.
The tricky part was figuring out his role.
One week after Gordon asked his publicist to delay a long-planned announcement that he would drive the pace car before a race he won five times, the four-time Cup champion returned to the 2.5-mile oval as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement and the top attraction in Sunday’s race.
“When (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) said to me, ‘Are you coming to Indianapolis?’ I said ‘Yes I am. I am coming on Saturday,’” Gordon said. “He said, ‘Well, you better bring your uniform.’”
The improbable comeback takes place just a short drive away from his childhood home of Pittsboro, Indiana, and eight months after his official retirement.
He’s back for only one reason: Earnhardt continues to battle concussion-like symptoms and has not yet been cleared by doctors to climb back into the car.
When Earnhardt took himself out of the No. 88 last weekend, Hendrick contacted his long-time star who was vacationing in France. Gordon agreed to pinch-hit when he returned. Gordon then texted publicist Jon Edwards, who contacted the speedway 15 minutes before the scheduled announcement.
For the Rainbow Warrior, this week’s pace has been every bit as frantic.
He flew to New York on Tuesday, then hopped on Hendrick’s plane, bound for North Carolina as Earnhardt was seeing doctors in Pittsburgh.
After landing in Charlotte, Gordon was whisked to team headquarters for a seat fitting. On Wednesday, the day it was announced Earnhardt would miss two more races, Gordon had a physical, applied for driver’s credentials and met with crew chief Greg Ives. Gordon spent the rest of the week watching Go-Pro videos, researching data and working in the simulator before practicing Friday. Qualifying will be held Saturday.
When he arrived at the track Friday, throngs of fans lined up to catch one more glimpse of Gordon.
“This is certainly the last thing I thought was going to happen, but I knew it was Indianapolis,” Gordon said. “I didn’t think about it. I felt like if there was one place that I was capable of doing it, it would be here.”
How much can be expected from a 44-year-old driver who will make his season debut at one of the series’ fastest tracks and on one of the season’s hottest weekends? The heat index is expected to hit triple digits Sunday.
“All I can tell you is that I have done everything I possibly can over the last three days to get ready for this race the best way that I can,” he said.
Gordon is the only five-time Brickyard winner and can become the first driver to ever win six times at Indy.
He’s not eligible to make the Chase — even with a win — because he hasn’t competed in enough races. But if the No. 88 car makes NASCAR’s playoffs and Earnhardt is not cleared to drive, Hendrick could keep Gordon, who kept the door open to running more races if needed.
Earnhardt’s recovery appears to be progressing, though.
“Today is the 1st day in many that I sensed improvement,” he wrote Friday on Twitter. “Seen small gains during my physical therapy as well. Light at the end of the tunnel.”
Earnhardt also missed two races in 2012 with a concussion, causing some concern about the future plans of the series’ most popular driver. Hendrick said he has discussed a contract extension beyond next season but would rather see Earnhardt focus on getting healthy right now.
Until then, other drivers expect Gordon to be an immediate factor.
“He could win it (Sunday) and surprise us,” defending winner Kyle Busch said. “I think realistically, he’ll be top 10.”
It’s not the first time Gordon was approached this season about making a return, either.
He also said he was asked to fill in for the injured Tony Stewart in February at Daytona. Gordon, who was with Stewart when he was injured riding an off-road vehicle, declined the invite because of his commitment to work on Fox Sports’ broadcast.
“I would have been all for it,” Stewart said with a smile. “I mean the least he could have done is, he broke my back, the least he could have done is drive for me.”
Gordon also acknowledged it will be strange to race against Chase Elliott, who took over in Gordon’s familiar No. 24 car after the 2015 season finale at Homestead.
But for now, he’ll put the pace-car driving duties on hold as he tries to win for the 94th time in his career.
“Really, this is just me helping out the organization,” Gordon said. “We will see what happens on Sunday.”