Like Michael Jordan before him, Jeff Gordon has suddenly come out of retirement. However he is not here to stay, nor is he starring in a “Space Jam”-type film. Hendrick Motorsports has called upon its greatest icon to replace the ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt is currently suffering from concussion symptoms and will be unable to participate in the upcoming two NASCAR Sprint Cup events. These include Pocono Raceway, and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With Gordon being the winner of the Brickyard’s inaugural NASCAR race, this makes for a fitting return. Regardless of the circumstances, how does this return affect the legend of Jeff Gordon?
The (Temporary) Return of Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon is among the most popular figures in sports. Upon announcing his retirement from NASCAR, the sport he had such a strong hand in building in popularity, the tributes began immediately. The sport was about to lose its undeniable face. Certainly, figures like Jimmie Johnson have been more visible in victory lane over the past decade. However, Jeff Gordon represents an entire era of NASCAR spanning over 20 years. NASCAR fans the world over poured their hearts out in support of Gordon throughout his final season. They knew that seeing Jeff Gordon racing at any point throughout the 2015 season would be the last time they would see him on the track.
This is no longer true. The announcement that Jeff Gordon is going to stand-in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. brings the legend back to the racetrack on NASCAR’s biggest stage once again. With such an abrupt return, reactions have been mixed.
A unanimously popular aspect of Jeff Gordon’s return is that he has chosen to do so at just the right spot. Having won the first NASCAR race at Indianapolis means that making his return at this particular course will have great significance to the driver and his fans. It is going to be incredible to see the number 24 Chevrolet grace the asphalt of Indianapolis once again. Except, Jeff Gordon won’t be driving that car. Chase Elliott is the current pilot of the iconic 24 car. Gordon would instead be in control of the number 88 Chevy. This is where the first uncomfortable aspect of Jeff Gordon’s return comes into play. Ever since his debut in the Cup series, Gordon has been inseparable from the number 24. For many fans, it was enough of an adjustment to see Elliott’s 24 while hearing Gordon’s voice in the FOX Sports broadcast booth.
As previously mentioned, NASCAR fans and tracks pulled out all stops to see him off correctly. Jeff Gordon had a victory lap that lasted across an entire season of NASCAR racing. It was an emotional affair for all involved, with Gordon being hit with the reality of his decision upon arriving at his final race. However it was a time to celebrate. Jeff Gordon had made it into the Final Four of the Chase and was fighting for a championship. Despite not winning, he left the sport in a blaze of glory for the history books, never to return.
Except now, he is returning. All things considered, Indianapolis is the perfect place for Gordon to make his return to be seen off one more time if he must. That said, he will also be replacing Earnhardt at the following race in Pocono. Rather than Gordon’s career ending in a championship battle, it will now end at a pre-Chase race in Pocono.
Jeff Gordon’s return should be an iconic moment in sports. It has happened before, such as with Michael Schumacher’s return to Formula 1. However, Schumacher’s retirement lasted from 2006 to 2010. Jeff Gordon’s “final” race took place in November of 2015, with his return slated for July 24th, 2016. With the long and emotional farewell last season, the wounds are still healing. Many fans are apprehensive towards Gordon’s return. Largely, it comes down to the timing. It simply has not been very long since Jeff Gordon left the sport. Therefore, his return does not seem so grandiose. NASCAR fans have only just begun to experience the sport without him for the first time in 22 years. Now, they are going to have a small hiccup of a return.
This is purely an immediate reaction. In fact, Jeff Gordon’s sudden return could be viewed positively in the near future. Obviously there will be great excitement to see him on the track again, regardless of the car he is driving. In the future, this could open up Gordon to sporadic returns, not unlike Mark Martin or Bobby Labonte. With this return, despite it’s circumstances, Jeff Gordon is now willing to come back to NASCAR. This despite his previously stating that his retirement was final. NASCAR is interesting in this respect that retired drivers have a tendency to return for significant races. Jeff Gordon initially did not want to be one of those drivers, but this could coerce him into such a position. The timing for now isn’t particularly great, but it could be great for the future.
Jeff Gordon’s role as commentator for FOX Sports complicates such a situation slightly. Obviously, these races do not apply. Significant events such as the Daytona 500 are covered by FOX, leaving Gordon unable to return for such events. With the Chase for the Sprint Cup taking place in the half of the year that Gordon is available, his window to return is somewhat limited.
It is entirely possible that Gordon does not wish to return to NASCAR periodically. After all, this return was brought about by Earnhardt’s injury. With Earnhardt’s history of concussions, it is important that he does not return to driving hastily. This gives Gordon at least two weeks behind the wheel of Earnhardt’s 88 car. Gordon’s return could simply last for this duration, never to occur again. One thing that is obvious with his retirement, it’s not entirely final. If he were to say this is the last time, he has said that before. It is difficult to speculate where Gordon will go from this.
Frankly, Jeff Gordon’s return can only be described as bittersweet. Although it was hard to let him go, NASCAR had to come to terms with continuing after Jeff Gordon. His presence in the broadcasting booth made this transition easier, and it eventually became the norm. Now, with Jeff Gordon’s sudden and short return, it is hard to know how to feel about it. Regardless of his importance to each individual fan’s experience with the sport throughout their lifetime, something about Gordon’s return seems empty.Obviously, there is no telling how people will react to seeing Jeff Gordon on the racetrack until the Brickyard 400 rolls around on Sunday. Until then, it is best to reflect on his driving career as it was for the past 22 years before before it ends again in a few weeks.