SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- For substitute driver Jeff Gordon, practice didn't make perfect on Friday afternoon.
Instead, it reminded Gordon just how difficult driving a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car can be.
In all fairness, Gordon has scant experience with the 2016 competition package, a version of which was used on a test basis only at Kentucky and Darlington last year in what was supposed to be Gordon's final season in Sprint Cup.
But concussion-like symptoms have forced Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the No. 88 Chevrolet and simultaneously pressed Gordon into unexpected service. To say the least, Gordon's first lap at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday's Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), was an eye-opener.
Gordon hadn't driven a Cup car since the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and he had less than three days to prepare after returning from vacation in France on Tuesday.
"Being out of the car that long and not really having a lot of experience with this package, it was a tall task, I'll be honest," Gordon said. "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.'"
HENDRICK HOPING HIS TEAMS CAN TURN A CORNER AT INDY
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s exit from the No. 88 Chevrolet because of concussion-like symptoms couldn't have come at a more inopportune time for Hendrick Motorsports.
The organization that dominated the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for much of the first decade of the 21st century has fallen on hard times lately, as Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have gained ascendancy in the sport.
Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson won for the second time this season in the fifth race of the year, at his home track in Fontana, Calif., but Gibbs and Penske have combined to win 12 of the 14 races since then.
It's true that Kurt Busch triumphed at Pocono and Tony Stewart at Sonoma in equipment supplied by Hendrick, but the flagship organization can count only Johnson's two victories this season. Even before Earnhardt stepped out of his car for last week's New Hampshire race, Chase Elliott in eighth place was the leading Hendrick driver in the Sprint Cup standings.
Johnson, a six-time champion and a perennial top-10 machine, has but one finish better than 12th in his last 10 races, and as a whole, the team have been plagued by an uncharacteristic spate of accidents.
"It seems like when it rains, it pours," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "I think at Daytona (in July) we wrecked three or four cars. And then we went to Kentucky and wrecked again. We were in good shape in New Hampshire, but wrecked again.
"Our place looks like a salvage yard where all of the cars have been tore up. But that just makes us dig harder."
Losing Earnhardt for an indefinite period of time hasn't helped.
"You never like having a curveball," Hendrick said. "This is kind of one of the toughest things you have to go through, (when) one of your star drivers can't drive. And so, the encouraging news is that everybody just stepped-up and is working harder.
"We're determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It's kind of our 'refuse to lose' belief. But we didn't need this, for sure. We didn't need the wrecks we've gone through."
Earnhardt visited the Hendrick shop this past week, and Hendrick hopes that represents a turning point for the organization. Having four-time champion Jeff Gordon in the No. 88 car as a substitute for Earnhardt also is the best possible solution to an unwelcome problem.
"I think Junior, coming to the shop, was a big lift," Hendrick acknowledged. "Jeff being here is a big lift. Hopefully, we'll turn the corner here pretty quick."
BIFFLE STILL FAST DESPITE HEAVY HEART
Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle comes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway riding a wave of three straight top-10 finishes but grieving for the loss of his father, Garland Jack Biffle, who passed away on Tuesday at age 75.
Being on track at the Brickyard, however, has helped Biffle keep his mind off his father's passing.
"I think it's a welcome distraction," said Biffle, who believes he has another top-10 car based on his practice runs. "He was sick last week when I was in Loudon, so I was thinking a lot about his last weekend at the track. It's a tough deal to go through. Everybody has either gone through it or are going to go through it. It's not an easy process.
"I think the only thing I can say at the end of the day, and everybody always says the same thing, is that you just wish you had spent one more day with him, instead of going off and doing your own thing. I can go to the desert anytime I want, but I can't go hang out with my dad anymore and go fish off the dock or something like that. That's what I am going to miss the most. It's hard."
SECOND DIVERSITY SCHOLARSHIP CONTEST
NASCAR and Chevrolet announced Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway the launch of the second annual NASCAR Chevrolet Diversity Scholarship Contest, continuing a long-standing commitment to Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) education and promoting opportunities for college students pursuing technology-related careers.
The contest challenges students to identify a technology or innovation within NASCAR and explain how STEM professionals came to its design in 90-second videos submitted via www.chevy.nascardiversity.com. Four winners will receive a total of $20,000 in scholarships and a VIP experience at Texas Motor Speedway during the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race on Nov. 6.
In what has quickly become an important component of NASCAR's diversity and inclusion platform, the scholarship program helps both organizations attract young, diverse talent to the world of motorsports.
"STEM professionals are invaluable to our sport," said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. "We're proud to partner again with Chevrolet in supporting talented students who we hope one day will play an important role in our industry."
Video submissions will be judged on technical accuracy, creativity and production quality. Examples of science and technology in NASCAR include, but are not limited to: track banking and construction, race car design, SAFER barrier walls, drafting, gas mileage, tire wear, ethanol fuel, pit road officiating and solar energy.
"At General Motors, diversity is our strength and we seek unique perspectives to infuse new ideas into all we do -- keeping us on the cutting edge of technological innovation," said Ken Barrett, Chief Diversity for General Motors.
"Attracting and employing the best and brightest STEM talent from around the world places GM and Chevy in the position to win in the marketplace and the race track."
To be eligible for the contest, students must be currently enrolled, at least part-time, in an accredited college or university within the United States, be between the ages of 18 and 25 at the time of entry and submit a YouTube link through the scholarship website. The deadline to enter is Oct. 15, 2016.