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Jeff Gordon: ‘I look forward to the challenge’ of Sunday’s race at Indy

Jeff Gordon discusses the challenges of returning to the car after a long absence and explains how it takes an adjustment to get used to the inconsistency.

INDIANAPOLIS – Spoiler alert: Jeff Gordon knows what will happen in Sunday’s Brickyard 400, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race since November.

“I’m going to be sore when the race is over,’’ he said Saturday after qualifying 21st.

Not what you expected?

That’s the thing. No one is quite sure what to expect when Gordon cranks the engine of the No. 88 Chevrolet that Dale Earnhardt Jr. normally drives. Gordon is in the car this weekend and next as Earnhardt recovers from concussion-like symptoms.

While some expect Gordon to show the same form that led to a victory late last season at Martinsville and a championship bid in Miami in November, there are many questions for a driver who has not raced this season.

“My expectations are very realistic,’’ said the four-time champion. “I’m approaching this the same way I’ve approached any race I’ve ever been in. I drive the car into the corner and the car gives me feedback. If it feels good, I drive it harder. If it doesn’t feel good, I find a way to manage it until we can make adjustments, or I can make an adjustment from inside the car with the track bar.

“Hey, this is a steep learning curve to be off the track this long and just jump in here. Luckily, I have a great race car and a great race team that is going to help me get through it.’’

Gordon has talked this week about how much work he’s had to do since ending his French vacation early for his substitute role. He’s been with the team, talked extensively with crew chief Greg Ives and engineers, spent time in a simulator and studied notes from a recent Indy test.

A key to making his car better throughout Sunday’s race will be how well he communicates what he needs to Ives.

“For me, for the most part, the work is done, other than me thinking about some things I can tell Greg and the engineers,’’ Gordon said. “The work all begins when the green flag drops.’’

When it does, temperatures will be in the 90s, meaning it will be well over 100 degrees in the car. How will Gordon handle the heat after not experiencing that this season?

“I’m not in the best shape I’ve ever been in, I’m not in the shape that I was last November, but handling heat has never been an issue for me,’’ Gordon said. “It’s the muscle fatigue that is going be the big thing for me. I’ll be working hard to do all the recovery stuff that I can do and I’m going to be sore when the race is over. I just want to be sore after a really good result.’’

He knows getting there might not be easy.

“We’ve got some work to do,’’ he said, “and I look forward to the challenge.’’

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