LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Jeff Gordon is ready to pull his firesuit out of storage and come off the bench for one more shot at winning one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races.
Gordon might not be done, but Junior just might be, at least for the immediate future.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been parked for this weekend’s NASCAR race and more absences could be ahead. Gordon, the four-time NASCAR champion, could make his retirement a brief one and go for his sixth win at the Brickyard next weekend in Indianapolis if Earnhardt is not cleared to return from concussion symptoms.
Earnhardt will sit out Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and there is no timetable on when NASCAR’s most popular driver might return. While retirement talk for the 41-year-old Earnhardt might be premature, his history of concussions could accelerate the process on when he decides to hang up the helmet.
Gordon thought he was finished, walking away at the end of last season and one final championship run from one of NASCAR’s all-time great careers: 93 wins, four series championships and more than $150 million in winnings.
But he is the obvious choice to pinch-drive in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Earnhardt, his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, at one of his favorite tracks. Gordon won the last of his record five Brickyard 400 victories in 2014.
“He’s not a bad person to think about to put in the car,” Hendrick general manager Doug Duchardt said Friday.
Gordon, who has called NASCAR races for Fox Sports this season and expressed interest in replacing the departed Michael Strahan as Kelly Ripa’s new “Live” co-host, tweeted he was in France this weekend, which ruled him out for a potential return at New Hampshire. Alex Bowman will drive the 88 on Sunday.
If Gordon races next weekend, his fellow drivers certainly don’t expect any rust from the former champ.
“Just because you go to the nude beach for a couple of months doesn’t mean you don’t know how to put your underwear back on,” Ryan Newman said.
Duchardt said a decision on the Brickyard will likely be made on Wednesday. He did not say if Gordon would continue to drive in the 88 — not his famed No. 24 now helmed by Chase Elliott — should Earnhardt remain out beyond the Brickyard. Duchardt could not say if Earnhardt actually had a concussion and declined to speculate on when he might return.
“When Dale is ready, that’s his car to get back into,” he said.
Earnhardt missed two races in 2012 when it was determined he had suffered two concussions in six weeks. Earnhardt was involved in a 22-car wreck in Daytona this month and also wrecked last month at Michigan International Speedway.
“I appreciate everyone’s support and prayers and will miss my team terribly this weekend. I’m working with some great doctors to get well,” Earnhardt tweeted.
Earnhardt told his team last weekend at Kentucky Speedway he wasn’t feeling well — he thought he had severe allergies — and finished 13th. He felt worse on Tuesday and told his team that they needed to at least consider a backup driver for New Hampshire. When medication for allergies and a sinus infection failed to work, Earnhardt dug deeper and met with a neurological specialist. After further evaluation, it was decided Earnhardt had to sit.
“My understanding was, Dale was told that he shouldn’t race,” Duchardt said. “He knew he wasn’t feeling well and had concerns about being in the car and running the whole race. To get healed, he needed to be out of the car.”
Earnhardt is winless this season and 13th in the points standings. Because he will not start every race, Earnhardt will need a waiver from NASCAR to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship if he meets other eligibility requirements. NASCAR has never denied a waiver request.
NASCAR is one of many sports over the last 10 years that has made sweeping changes in how it treats head injuries. NASCAR mandated in 2013 for drivers to submit a baseline neurocognitive assessment. When a driver in NASCAR can’t return his damaged car to the garage, a trip to the care center is required, and under a new three-step process a driver showing any indication of a head injury must go immediately to a hospital. Concussed drivers must be cleared by an independent neurologist or neurosurgeon before they can get back in a race car.
NASCAR has identified 46 total concussions in the three national series since 2004, including two last year and four already this season.
Earnhardt had already pledged his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The group works with Boston University on research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease that doctors believe is caused by repeated blows to the head.
Chris Nowinski, Legacy co-founder, said Earnhardt has become the face of concussion awareness in sports.
“There’s been no athlete as prominent as Dale Earnhardt Jr. who has been willing to consistently talk about concussions, educate the public and set the right example,” he said. “What we need are elite athletes, our stars, to talk about this and advance the conversation and better protect children.”
He said sign up for brain donation on the Legacy’s website spiked following Earnhardt’s announcement in April.
The premature deaths and degenerative brain ailments reported in former NFL stars and NHL enforcers have made athletes in all sports more aware of the frightening consequences of trying to tough it out and compete with a concussion. Because brain trauma could impair reaction time and cause brutal wrecks at over 200 mph, Nowinski said, “the risks are more significant than perhaps in other sports.”
With Junior out, Hendrick turned this weekend to the 23-year-old Bowman, who has not raced in the Cup series this season and had no top-10 finishes in 71 starts over the 2014-2015 seasons. He drives part-time in the second-tier Xfinity Series for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team.
“I’m not here to try and be Dale Earnhardt Jr,” Bowman said.
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