BRISTOL, Tenn. — The first time he met Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon never imagined that he would one day drive in relief for his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
Yet here Saturday night, Gordon will do just that, suiting up for the fourth consecutive race to drive the organization’s No. 88 Chevrolet in place of Earnhardt in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Earnhardt has been sidelined since mid-July due to concussion-like symptoms and the timing of his return has yet to be determined.
Their first meeting came in the mid 1990s at North Wilkesboro Speedway when Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Earnhardt Jr.’s father, were at the top of their game. The elder Earnhardt was already a legendary figure in the sport; Gordon was on his way to becoming one.
The cheering and jeering of the Earnhardt and Gordon fans was a weekly occurrence at tracks across the country. That the two would go on to become both friends and business associates seemed unfathomable to those in the grandstands.
“I remember sitting there on pit road and Dale Sr. and he came walking by … it was the first time I ever met (Junior),” Gordon told NASCAR.com recently. “They were getting ready to qualify; I don’t remember if he was driving a Late Model maybe … I don’t exactly remember but I knew he’d been doing some racing and was building some momentum.
“I remember that he was very respectful. It was cool to meet him and then shortly after that see him rise as quick as he did.”
Gordon “retired” from competition at the end of 2015, with four series titles and 93 career victories. The last time he visited Bristol, he was working in the television booth, just two months into his new role as a FOX NASCAR analyst.
RELATED: Remembering some of the top moments at Bristol
Now, he’s back behind the wheel at a track where he notched five wins and five of 81 career poles.
Hendrick officials announced July 14 that doctors had not cleared Earnhardt Jr. to compete the following weekend at New Hampshire. Alex Bowman stepped in and finished 26th in his only start with the team.
Gordon took over the driving duties for races at Indianapolis (13th), Pocono (27th) and most recently Watkins Glen (14th).
Getting back in the car, and the No. 88 in particular, was an unusual feeling for Gordon although the 45-year-old certainly garnered his share of the spotlight throughout his career.
“I knew it was a big story,” he said of the return, “but still until you’re living it and the reality of it is there, you don’t know how your heart’s going to beat, how your hands are going to sweat. That first time on track at Indy, I was sweating. And not just because of the heat.
“It would be different if I had been out for one week or two weeks. But I’d been out for eight months. I hadn’t really driven this package. There’s added pressure because of the situation, it being Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car. To me the pressure was more about the performance.”
Earnhardt, who also missed two races in 2012 after suffering a concussion, is a two-time champion in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series and has 26 Sprint Cup victories. His absence from competition has seen him fall from 13th to 21st in the points standings.
His move to the XFINITY Series (then Busch Grand National) is one Gordon hasn’t forgotten either. Earnhardt made one start in the series ’96 and eight in ’97 before going full-time the following season.
“I went to see Dale Sr. about some business and he said ‘Hey come check out Dale Jr.’s car for Watkins Glen,” Gordon said. “… I looked at the car and remember it wasn’t fancy, wasn’t some super premium piece of equipment. The shifter on it was so long. Total old school. At that point we had been making really nice transmissions, road course cars, short shifters and all those things.”
Gordon said he took the opportunity for a bit of friendly ribbing.
“I gave Senior a hard time,” he said. “I was like ‘What’s this? You’re going to make him go to Watkins Glen in this? That shifter is just wrong. This car is not at all what he deserves.'”
Earnhardt wasn’t swayed by the comments, according to Gordon.
“He goes, ‘Oh no. I’m going to make him work for it. He’s not going to have it easy; he’s going to work on it himself. I’m not going give him the best equipment. He’s not going to learn anything being in the best equipment. He’s going to have to drive some mediocre equipment so he can learn.’
“And I thought that was pretty cool.”