On the heels of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement that he was sitting out the New Hampshire 301 due to suffering from concussion-like symptoms, Hendrick Motorsports made an equally stunning statement that Jeff Gordon might be returning to the track in Indianapolis this upcoming weekend driving the No. 88. If there was ever a moment where the racing gods had determined that the great breach among NASCAR fans had been healed, I think this was it.
No, I am not celebrating Junior’s injury. I am very sorry that he is suffering and worse yet, with a condition that is not likely to permanently disappear, even with treatment. But if we go back to 2008 and the media circus that commenced with his arrival at Hendrick Motorsports, it was something akin to the zombie apocalypse in NASCAR terms. His father had been on one side of the most storied rivalry in the sport’s history, going toe-to-toe on and off the track with Jeff Gordon since “The Kid’s” arrival in 1993. After Senior passed away in 2001, the fan rivalry that avidly supported the No. 3 and No. 24 respectively sort of transferred their passion to the Intimidator’s son. The anti-Gordon/anti-Earnhardt camps in the infield remained pretty much intact for the next six years.
That is until the No. 8 turned into the No. 88 and Junior started hanging his hat at Mr. H’s. shop, when he signed on as a driver with Hendrick Motorsports. For quite some time the Gordon and Earnhardt fans were hard pressed to smile at one another and call each other teammates. It simply grated. We grimaced when we saw the No. 88 share a flagpole with the No. 24. Co-workers who had previously growled at one another on Monday mornings now tried to smile. It hurt. It hurt a lot.
As with all old injuries, the pain lessened or became more familiar–your pick. We became accustomed to seeing husband and wife wear t-shirts that in the past may have ended in divorce. Even if the Earnhardt crowd never got around to loving the Rainbow Warriors, the beer tossing became less vehement.
So on Friday, when Mr. Hendrick gave his statement to the media that he was looking to sit Jeff Gordon in the Nationwide Chevrolet at the Brickyard, I was waiting for the howl of protest to scream across the camp grounds at New Hampshire.
It didn’t come. No, “Oh my god! Gordon can’t drive Junior’s car! Ick!” No swearing. No throwing of sharp objects across the room. The angst and anger did not come.
Instead, we looked around in the grandstands and smiled. We nodded and agreed…yep, agreed, that it would be really cool to have Gordon back in a car one more time. And at Indy. And helping out Dale Jr.
I waited, but the earth did not open up beneath me. The race ran on Sunday and the day passed as pretty much every other race day. Alex Bowman performed well under the microscope. Junior tweeted in his disappointment at missing the race and appreciation for all the hard work Bowman did on such short notice. It was all very polite.
We’re expecting more concrete information on Tuesday. Gordon has to return from vacation and get his NASCAR license and physical taken care of. However, it does seem like the unthinkable is going to happen. And it does seem like the world is not ending. The retired driver of the No. 24 is going to drive the No. 88 in Sprint Cup competition.
These are strange days, my friends. Strange days.
From the strange things you see at the track files: Parked in the FanZone at NHMS was a monstrous iron machine. It was a catapult built on the scale medieval armies used to destroy stone walls. Its name is Yankee Siege and will be throwing ten pound pumpkins in the October Extreme Chunkin’ competition. The 58,000 lb. contraption can toss the little orange orbs well over 2,000 feet, or the shell of a Volkswagen Beetle the length of a football field. The video shows it tossing a half-ton of pumpkin just for the fun of it.
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