Ingrid Vandebosch and Jeff Gordon arrive on the red carpet 2016 amfAR New York Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on February 10, 2016 in New York City. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
Rarely has a pre-race scenario been more topsy-turvy than this: Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulls out of a marquee event to address lingering concussion symptoms and Jeff Gordon comes out of retirement to substitute for NASCAR's most popular driver at the Brickyard 400.
There's an upside and a downside to nearly every consideration in play at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
If he's physically fit, Gordon can win the race in the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy after a near perfect swan song season last year, when he bid farewell to his Sprint Cup career as a candidate to win the championship.
But there's a downside, too.
After 23 consecutive seasons without missing a race, four titles and tons of records, Gordon returns as a utility man. Absent a victory on Sunday, there went the perfect ending. At least he'll get another chance at the Pocono Raceway next week.
It is too early to speculate on how Earnhardt Jr. will handle the problem of reoccurring concussion symptoms, but undoubtedly the biggest downside is the loss of the Sprint Cup's most popular driver for two more races. The short term upside is Earnhardt, Jr. can take his time about deciding to get back into his Chevy if his symptoms of nausea and balance are resolved. What better substitute could he have than a four-time champion and former teammate?
At a time when NASCAR is losing some of its biggest heroes to retirement, suddenly two Indiana legends will be racing at the Brickyard for, theoretically at least, the last time. Tony Stewart, due to step out of a full-time role in the Sprint Cup next year, and Gordon each came out of the Hoosier state's racing hotbed.
On the other hand, what if the presence of these two doesn't set the turnstiles spinning?
Compared to this year's sold out Indy 500, another desultory crowd in the summer stock car race will only add to the conundrum of NASCAR's inability to rebound to the glory days prior to the Great Recession.
Questions about Gordon's physical condition and his readiness to continue in the No. 88 Chevy if needed will initially be answered on Friday morning at the Speedway, when the driver and team owner Rick Hendrick will meet with the media. Hendrick has already acknowledged that it will be an emotional weekend seeing Gordon in the car in Earnhardt, Jr.'s absence. The day's two practice sessions will also shed some light on questions about Gordon's readiness to win.
I wouldn't put long odds against Gordon.
He's won the Brickyard race five times, most recently in 2014 when he broke a tie with Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson for most wins at the track. Although Earnhardt, Jr. has not won a race this year in the No. 88, he has recorded four runner-up finishes. Gordon may not have much experience with Crew Chief Greg Ives, but he's returning to the same team where he spent his entire career.
Then there's the motivational aspect.
The number of times Gordon gets to drive the No. 88 is indeterminate. But it's not open-ended. Like Kyle Busch coming back from injuries last year, Gordon will be highly motivated in a return to a sport he loves. He will also be motivated by the short-term nature of the opportunity, not that a four-time champion and winner of 93 Sprint Cup races needs to be primed.
It's unusual for a top-line driver to be named as a substitute in a front-line car. Usually, the best drivers are already employed when a seat opens up unexpectantly and the call goes to an otherwise deserving driver like Alex Bowman last week in the New Hampshire race.
Ironically, the most memorable time a star driver substituted involved Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and the Southern 500 in 1979. When Earnhardt suffered severe injuries, including a broken collar bone, a bruised heart and a concussion at Pocono in his rookie year, David Pearson was called on by team owner Rod Osterlund. The "Silver Fox" had been fired by the Wood Brothers after a pit road miscue in the Rebel 400 at the Darlington Raceway in the spring of that season.
A master at Darlington, where he still holds the record for most victories and poles, Pearson, aged 44, won the Southern 500 substituting for Earnhardt. Gordon, who holds the record for poles as well as wins in the Brickyard 400, enters Sunday's race at age 44. Gordon also holds the record for the most Top 5s and Top 10s at Indy.
There are some oddball considerations, beyond the fact his serendipitous appearance enables Gordon to continue to hold the record as the only driver who has competed in every Brickyard 400. Or that it will be his first entry in a Sprint Cup car other than No. 24.
While working as a commentator for Fox Sports this year, Gordon has been criticized for being partial to the Hendrick team. One of the major reasons for Gordon's return to drive the Hendrick entry on Sunday is loyalty to team owner Rick Hendrick. So his short-term "rescue" of Hendrick underscores an ongoing bias toward the team, where Gordon is part owner of the No. 48 entry of Jimmie Johnson.
How would a Gordon win influence the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, if at all? There is the precedent of a driver needing to finish in the Top 30 in points to be eligible.
But that precedent was established by changing the previous rule requiring a driver to start all 26 races prior to the Chase. Would there be another new precedent on behalf of Gordon -- should he be slated to continue for the remainder of the season in the No. 88?