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Through an assortment of sponsors and varying paint schemes in a career spanning 23 years, it was a constant in each of Jeff Gordon’s 798 Cup Series starts that never did he compete in a race without the No. 24 adorning his car.
It was his number when he won four championships and 93 races. Along the way, Gordon made the No. 24 iconic, one of the most recognized numbers in NASCAR history, alongside Richard Petty’s No. 43 and Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3. So identified was the number with Gordon that when he announced that the 2015 season would be his last, there was debate among some fans whether NASCAR should retire the No. 24 to honor one of its all-time greats.
NASCAR’s policy, however, is not to retire numbers. Hendrick Motorsports elected to continue using the No. 24 this season for Gordon’s heir apparent, Chase Elliott, a promising rookie who, like Gordon was once, is considered a future star and champion.
But a series of circumstances compelled Gordon to come out of retirement to race this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the following week at Pocono Raceway. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was advised to sit out due to concussion-like symptoms, Hendrick Motorsports needed a driver, and the most obvious choice was the man who had retired just eight months before.
Gordon will wheel Earnhardt’s car in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 (3:00 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network and streaming at NBC Sports Live Extra, and the number on the side of his Chevrolet will not be 24, but Earnhardt’s customary No. 88. It is an unusual sight, seeing one driver so linked with one number climbing into a car with a number synonymous with a different driver.
“To me, once I get behind the wheel and I’m inside the car I don’t know what is on the outside of that car” Gordon said Friday. “It’s a race car and I’m going to be focused on driving, not focused on anything else.”
“The biggest thing is going to the No. 88 stall, not the No. 24 stall. Twenty-three years, I went to that No. 24 stall. We have already talked about the processes of assuring that doesn’t happen.”
Beyond just aesthetics, there are other factors more pressing to which Gordon needs to quickly acclimate himself. He is working with an unfamiliar crew chief, Greg Ives, he must knock off the rust that accumulates when you’ve not turned a competitive lap since Nov. 22, learn the nuances of a new low-downforce aerodynamic rules package, and his fitness will be challenged due to a forecast projecting ambient temperatures in the upper 90s.
In practice Friday, Gordon admittedly struggled to adjust. After posting the ninth-fastest lap in the first session, he fell to 25th in the second.
“Being out of the car that long and not really having a lot of experience with this package it was a tall task, I will be honest,” Gordon said. “It was one of the most challenging days I’ve had in a race car to try to get comfortable, be consistent, have the speed and give good feedback.”
“It was tough. That first run I was like, ‘Wow, I forgot how hard of work this is.'”
On Saturday, Gordon qualified 25th. It marks his third-worst qualifying effort in 23 Indianapolis starts.
“We have started in the back and won this thing before,” Gordon said. “I feel real good about where we are at as a team, and the balance of the car in race trim to be able to move up through the field.”