Gordon’s return brings the hype, now he has to race

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 23: Jeff Gordon, driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – As he has done 22 times before, Jeff Gordon walked into Indianapolis Motor Speedway Friday morning ready to race in the Brickyard 400. More of the same really. This year, it’s everything that leads up to the race that’s been different, starting with a phone call from team owner Rick Hendrick.

“Rick said to me, ‘Are you coming to Indianapolis?'” recalled Gordon. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m coming on Saturday.’ He goes, ‘Well you’d better bring your uniform.'”

And just like that, the five-time Brickyard champion was back, with no hesitation.

“I didn’t anticipate this,” said Gordon through a smile. “This was certainly the last thing I thought was going to happen, but when I knew that it was Indianapolis, I didn’t think twice about it. I felt like if there was one place I was capable of doing it, it’d be here.”

Gordon will drive the 88 car of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who’s still recovering from a concussion. The results Gordon posts will count toward Junior’s team, which is hoping to earn a spot in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“For me,” explained Gordon, “my goal is to come here and give this team the best effort that I can and get them the best result, hopefully a good one.”

So what would be a good result? Gordon’s one of the best to ever drive a stock car, particularly at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but on the other hand, he hasn’t been in a race all year. One thing is for sure: His competitors will not underestimate him.

“He could surprise us all,” said 2015 Brickyard champ Kyle Busch. “He could win, but realistically, top 10 for sure. I feel he could be pretty good enough to jump back in and be ready to finish top 10 right away.”

“He has so many laps in a race car and so many laps here,” added Jimmie Johnson, a four-time Brickyard 400 champion. “Once the excitement of being on the track for the first time goes away and the butterflies subside, he’ll be out there and do just fine, so I don’t see it being difficult for him.”

A reporter asked Tony Stewart what he thought the toughest part of this week would be for Gordon. Smoke didn’t hesitate in his response.

“Nothing for him, and I say that because he can handle all this. It won’t be any problems for him, and I promise you, getting back in the car, it’ll be like he never got out of a car. He’ll be fine.”

Gordon qualified 21st, right in the middle of the pack, for Sunday’s Brickyard 400, so he’s looked fine so far. The good news? He’s already identified one potential challenge in particular.

“The biggest thing is going to the 88 stall, not the 24 stall,” Gordon laughed. “Twenty-three years I went to that 24 stall.”

If that’s the biggest challenge Gordon faces this weekend, more power to him, but the biggest draw this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is simply his presence, the fact that he’s there. Gordon has created a heightened anticipation for this Brickyard 400 which he’ll have to put aside once the racing begins.

“To me,” says Gordon, “once I get behind the wheel and I get inside the car, I don’t know what’s on the outside of that car. It’s a race car, and I’m gonna be focused on driving.”

“Jeff has always been so well supported by the fans at this race track,” adds Jimmie Johnson. “I can only imagine how loud they’re gonna be at driver intros and how bonkers this place would go if he’s able to win.”

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