For the first time in his 23-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Jeff Gordon drove a different number than his iconic No. 24 last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Gordon came out of retirement and filled in for an ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wheeled the No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet to a 13th-place finish in the 400-mile race. He hadn’t raced since last November and got the call from Rick Hendrick to sub for the second-generation driver who was dealing with concussion-like symptoms.
Does this change Jeff Gordon’s legendary presence in NASCAR’s top-series?
Not one bit.
It doesn’t change the magical run at the championship to end 2015 or make him less of a driver for filling-in for his former teammates. Homestead was his last race and there was nothing like it being there to watch him try to go out on top. This substitute role won’t change anything that happened in last year’s Chase, even the surreal moment when he qualified fifth for the finale
It’s weird to see Gordon in anything else but the No. 24. I looked twice when I saw Chase Elliott’s name go across the ticker during Brickyard practice while still looking for where Gordon’s appeared. Another Jeff also came out of retirement to fill-in a few years ago. Jeff Burton drove two races for Tony Stewart while the three-time Cup champ overcame legal issues and obstacles from the Kevin Ward accident. Burton said he’d be ok if Loudon was his last race back in July 2014, but a fill-in role is on another level from determining a driver’s legacy.
The same situation could be Richard Petty driving the No. 3 or Dale Earnhardt in the 43. It might look unusual to see both seven-time champs in different cars, but not hinder their driving accomplishments. Earnhardt is known for the No. 3 throughout most of his career. He won six of his seven championships driving for Richard Childress. The first one came with Rod Osterlund when a 29-year-old Earnhardt won the championship the year after being the Cup Series rookie of the year. Petty drove several numbers before driving the No. 43, including his dad’s No. 42.
All of it is a numbers game. The history of a particular one goes far back in NASCAR history. Another Gordon (no relation) drove the 24 before Jeff took the reins.
A number can be sentimental to a racer, but doesn’t affect their driving ability.