Long time NASCAR fans will recall the intense rivalry between those supporting Dale Earnhardt Jr and those supporting Jeff Gordon during the early first decade of this century. And the word ‘intense’ is exactly what it was, as fans literally hated each other on race day, often chiding one another at the track.
Actually, the rivalry dates back to the mid 90’s in the last century, when Jeff Gordon began his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. Gordon was the polished, young, up-and-coming star, up-staging NASCAR’s seven-time Cup series champion, Dale Earnhardt. The rivalry continued past the super star’s death in 2001 at Daytona with his son’s up-and-coming career just beginning.
On May 10, 2007 when NASCAR’s most popular driver, Earnhardt Jr announced that he would leave his late father’s race team, Dale Earnhardt Inc (DEI) to race for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, the news rocked the NASCAR world, especially Dale Jr’s most loyal fans. The thought of Earnhardt racing for the rival team of Hendrick Motorsports where Jeff Gordon was their mainstay driver, was simply baffling to his long time fans.
As we all now know, it was a good move for Dale Earnhardt Jr and his fans survived that shocking decision.
That said, the irony of Gordon now stepping into Earnhardt Jr’s No. 88 car this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not lost on those of us recalling the history between the two drivers’ fans. Some may wonder how much of a dilemma fans will experience, especially if Gordon were to win the coveted Brickyard 400 – the Crown Royal presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at the Brickyard – in the No. 88 car this weekend at Indy?
Earnhardt Jr, driver of the No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports, has not been cleared by physicians to compete as he continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms. He will miss racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 24 and at Pocono Raceway on July 31. After not competing Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Indianapolis marks the second race Earnhardt will miss.
Undergoing further evaluation Tuesday at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. The driver said this week on his “The Dale Jr. Download” podcast that he has had issues with balance and nausea. So, he will not travel to Indianapolis or Pocono. A timetable has not yet been established for his return.
Four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon is coming out of racing retirement to step in for Earnhardt to drive the No. 88 at both Indianapolis and Pocono. Gordon grew up in Pittsboro, Indiana, and last raced the 2015 Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He started a new role in the broadcast booth with FOX this season, in addition to continuing his role as an equity owner of Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon has made all 797 of his career Cup starts for car owner Rick Hendrick, competing in his 23rd and last full-time Sprint Cup Series season in 2015.
Gordon, leads the following NASCAR Sprint Cup Series statistical categories at Indianapolis Motor Speedway: wins (five), poles (three), top-five finishes (12, five more than any other driver), top-tens (17, six more than second) and laps led (528). Gordon is also the youngest Cup Series winner at the 2.5-mile oval, having earned his first victory there on August 6, 1994, when he was just 23 years and two days old.
The 44-year-old driver’s five victories at the Brickyard tie him with former Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher for most among drivers at the famed speedway. Gordon visited Victory Lane in the inaugural event in 1994 and again in 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2014 on the 2.5-mile oval. Schumacher’s wins occurred on the road-course layout at the historic track. A win for Gordon this weekend would break the tie with Schumacher.
Gordon will fill in starting during a week when the familiar yellow, orange and red Axalta colors will adorn the No. 88 Chevy. Axalta, formerly known as DuPont Performance Coatings, was a 23-year partner on Gordon’s famed No. 24 Chevrolet, and he continues to have a role with the company as its global ambassador.
So, with time healing old wounds, there’s a good chance Gordon and Earnhardt Jr fans alike will cheer on the No. 88 this weekend at the Brickyard.
Yes, there was a time that thought was absolutely unthinkable – and the irony is noteworthy!