By Steve Mickey
The only thing out of the ordinary at the sight of Jeff Gordon crawling behind the wheel of a Hendrick Motor Sport’s Chevrolet on Sunday at Pocono was that he got in the No. 88 instead of the No. 24 that he made famous. Gordon was filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. who missed his second consecutive race due to suffering concussion like symptoms. `
It was as if Gordon had never left the sport after walking away at the end of last season after finishing his hall of fame type career that saw him enter the last race of the season at Homestead-Miami as one of four drivers with a chance to win the title. He began this season back at the track as one of the FOX Sports commentators so he kept up with all of the changes in the sport that can change from week to week as teams continue to push the envelope to try and gain an advantage.
Gordon will go to Pocono this week after having one race under his belt to not only get use to the car but also working with a new crew. Even though it will be only his second race of the season he will have to be considered one of the favorites as he is Pocono’s all-time winningest driver.
Earnhardt’s health is and will always be the number one concern but with every race that he has to miss, his chance of making the Chase continues to dwindle. He is now out of the top-16 in points and it is beginning to look like the best way of making the Chase this season would be to win a race once he is able to get back into his car. He would have to like his chance of notching a win before the Chase field is set as he has two wins at Michigan and three at Richmond.
Recovering from a concussion is unlike any other injury that a driver may suffer as it is hard to put a date on when a driver will return. Both Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart suffered severe injuries over the last two seasons and while both drivers missed significant time behind the wheel, both drivers knew the date that they would return. In Earnhardt’s situation it could be that if he cannot make it into the Chase that he may elect to sit out the remainder of the season and concentrate on being fully recovered for the start of the 2017 season.
Owner Rick Hendrick and Gordon may have a tough decision on how long he will stay behind the wheel of the #88. There will definitely be no pressure on him to preform but there may be a more important factor to Gordon than just getting back behind the wheel. His career makes him all but a lock to get nominated and elected to the Hall Of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Hall of Fame eligibility requires that a driver under the age of 55 must be retired for a minimum of two years before he can be considered.
Gordon was to become eligible for consideration to be nominated in 2018 for induction in the class of 2019. NASCAR has not made any announcement if his two-race stint filling in for Earnhardt will push his eligibility back a year to the class of 2020.
If Gordon’s return to the track does push his Hall of Fame eligibility back a year, it may be that he would be willing to stay in the car until Earnhardt’s return regardless of the length. He may also lack the motivation to stay behind the wheel knowing that he would not have the opportunity to run for the title during the final ten races of the season that makes up the Chase portion of the schedule.
PIT NOTES – The sight of so many empty seats at Indy on Sunday makes it hard to believe that the first ever Cup race at the track in 1994 was attended by 270,000 fans. The return of Jeff Gordon and the last ever race for Tony Stewart at his home track was not enough to help fill so many empty seats. Even though NASCAR no longer announces attendance figure, the crowd appeared to fall way short of 100,000.
Event: Pennsylvania 400
Track: Pocono Raceway (2.5 mile tri-oval, 14o of banking in turn 1, 8o in turn 2, 6o in turn 3)
Date: July 24, 1:50 pm
Defending Race Winner: Matt Kenseth