INDIANAPOLIS — Jeff Gordon battled through a day in which he called his restarts “just plain bad,” finishing 13th in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start since November of 2015 on Sunday as he returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
For the first time in his career, Gordon started a Sprint Cup race in a car not numbered 24, subbing for the recovering Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet, and by the end of the day had avoided a multi-car crash, moved forward eight spots from where he started and learned a thing or two about restarts in his second chance at his final-career start at IMS.
“(Saying goodbye) today was certainly better than last year,” Gordon said with a smile. “Last year wasn’t very good, but today was a fight, too. It was challenging to be out there with the best of the best … especially on those restarts. I got my butt kicked today on restarts. It was embarassing. While I was filling in for Dale Jr., and I hope he’s doing good, I needed a fill-in on restarts.”
“We had a fast race car, we just could never get the track position we needed because it was pretty tough to pass out there.”
Gordon started 21st but moved around his teammate and replacement in the No. 24, Chase Elliott, to move into 19th by the lap 10 benchmark.
The four-time Cup champion would complain early about a tight condition, as would many other drivers in the field, and it was one that the team worked to remedy under his first pit stop prior to lap 30. The stop would drop Gordon a lap down in 27th, however, with ground to make up before he regained the lead lap on the 42nd round — when race leader Brad Keselowski made his pit stop for service.
A caution with 53 rounds complete would save Gordon, who was running 24th at the time, from going a lap down and allow his crew to go to work on improving the handle of the No. 88.
Restarting 21st after gaining two positions on pit road, Gordon was able to make minimal tracks forward and found himself 19th by the time the halfway point hit at lap 80, searching for “more grip” in his machine.
Gordon’s next pit stop would come two laps after halfway, with the team making wholesale changes to the car, including air pressure and chassis adjustments, all in an effort to get the car closer to the top 10.
The moves paid off, as a slight short-pit allowed Gordon to claw up to the 12th position — just behind Kurt Busch — by the time the field hit lap 100, and he would pass the elder Busch for 11th with 48 circuits remaining, just before a caution interrupted the final scheduled green-flag pit cycle and saw him sitting 10th entering his final stop with 38 to go.
Gordon would restart 12th with 33 circuits remaining, but got wide in turn three, giving up one position and nearly two seconds before being able to regroup with another quick yellow three laps later. He made another pit stop for adjustments, in hopes of using four fresh tires to make up ground in the final run.
However, Gordon would be mired in 16th before being able to pick up some late-race track position, first with a debris caution at 10 to go and then by evading a multi-car pileup three laps later in turns one and two.
The good fortune allowed him to rise through the field to end the day 13th, which included a fight with fellow Indiana fan favorite Tony Stewart on a pair of NASCAR Overtime restarts to close the race.
“I really liked working with Greg and this whole 88 team,” Gordon added. “It took us a little while to get the balance right, but the track and adjustments eventually came to us. Greg made an awesome pit call to come in early right there at halfway, and he called it right as I was going into turn four, and that made all the difference in our day. It made up a ton of spots for us.”
“I didn’t want to see those cautions there at the end, but I don’t know. We survived. … That last restart, the car was finally decent on the outside after being so loose up there all day, and I made up a bunch of spots off of (turn four).”
“On one hand, I’m relieved that this race is over and on the other, I would have liked for it to have gone better. I’m looking forward to Pocono.”