Thursday, July 21, 2016

An Itch That Maybe Should Remain Unscratched: Returning From Retirement

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s concussion-like symptoms sidelined him for last week's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race from New Hampshire Motor Speedway and the driver of the #88 Chevrolet will miss the next two races because of the symptoms. Alex Bowman, the 23-year-old Arizonan stepped up at Loudon to substitute for his NASCAR Xfinity Series car owner but Jeff Gordon returns to make his 798 NASCAR Cup start at Indianapolis this weekend and is scheduled to be at Pocono the following week.

Gordon retired from full-time competition after last season and the four-time NASCAR Cup champion and five-time winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has not been in a car since he stepped out of the car and became a color commentator for Fox's NASCAR broadcast. Motorsports has seen its fair share of drivers coming out of retirement to either fill-in or because a driver can't stay away from where they made their living.

Gordon's return comes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; a place where arguably more drivers have hopped back behind the wheel after previously announcing their career was done. Danny Ongais had been out of IndyCar for almost nine years when he replaced Scott Brayton after the Michigan-native lost his life practicing for the Indianapolis 500 in 1996. Ongais started in the back of the field and went from 33rd to seventh in what would be his final Indianapolis 500. Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser were all Indianapolis 500 winners who couldn't stay away in May even though full-time competition was long behind them. Michael Andretti stopped driving full-time when he became a team owner but still returned to run the Indianapolis 500 twice, with a third in 2006 and 13th in 2007 to cap off his career.

NASCAR has a slew of drivers, especially in the last decade and a half, who announced their retirements and then went on to start another couple dozen races. Mark Martin announced his farewell tour for the 2005 season and then went on to make another 244 NASCAR Cup starts, which included a dream 2009 season where Martin won five races and finished second in the championship and ironically ended with Martin substituting for an injured Tony Stewart and he substituted for an injured Denny Hamlin earlier that season. Bill Elliott retired in 2003 but made 97 more NASCAR Cup starts over the next decade. Terry Labonte retired after 2004 but made 73 Cup starts after that and his most recent start came in 2014. While Martin had respectable results even in his final season, arguably the only reason both Elliott's and Labonte's careers were extended was because of the past champions' provisional. Elliott and Labonte became a meal ticket for struggling, underfunded teams to get into a race and hopefully draw sponsors. Elliott's final top ten finish was in 2004, ironically at Indianapolis as a part-time driver, but his career would end with 93 consecutive races finishing outside the top ten. Labonte's final top ten finish was in 2006 and his 11th place finish in the 2014 July race at Daytona came in a rain-shortened race.

North American drivers aren't the only one who couldn't stay away. Michael Schumacher retired after 2006 and nearly returned to Ferrari after Felipe Massa's accident at Hungary in 2009 but a neck injury kept him out of the seat. However, Schumacher would return to Formula One the following year when Mercedes bought Brawn GP. He could add to his 91 Grand Prix victories with a third in the 2012 European Grand Prix being his lone podium in his stint at Mercedes. Niki Lauda retired after the 1979 season and was out for two years before returning with McLaren in 1982 and he would add a world championship in 1984.

With Gordon's return this weekend, there is excitement and nervousness about Gordon's return. His career ended on a high in a fight for the championship. He went out swinging. While Gordon likely won't go down the path of Elliott, Labonte and Martin who arguably held on too long, this stint could be a glimpse of what it would have looked like had Michael Schumacher substituted for Felipe Massa in 2009. Schumacher wasn't race fit at that time and the Ferrari wasn't particular great that season. Gordon has been out of a car and hasn't been in a driver mindset since November. Gordon waltzing in and winning at Indianapolis is the fairytale many are imagining but history and logic sing a different tune. Perhaps Gordon could get a top ten finish but the Jeff Gordon of old will not be inside the #88 Chevrolet this weekend. These two starts won't ruin Gordon's career and put him in the category of those who retired too late but it just may be the final nail in the coffin anyone yearning for him return to full-time competition.