Darrell Waltrip explains why Jeff Gordon can win Sunday at Indy

Darrell Waltrip said Wednesday that he will not be surprised if his NASCAR on FOX television broadcast partner, Jeff Gordon, goes to Victory Lane in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet this Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Wednesday that Gordon, a four-time champion in NASCAR’s top series who retired as a full-time Sprint Cup driver at the end of last season, will drive the No. 88 Chevy this weekend at Indy and next weekend at Pocono Raceway in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is suffering from concussion-like symptoms.

"I have talked to him since he found out he will drive the No. 88 at Indianapolis," Waltrip said. "His willingness to fill in for Dale Jr. shows the loyalty, commitment and friendship he has with (team owner) Rick Hendrick. If Rick called me and told me he needed me to drive any of his four cars, I’d do it in a heartbeat — and I’ll be 70 in February — not because I want to but because he asked me. That’s the loyalty Jeff has to Rick.

Jeff Gordon to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. for at least 2 races

Gordon, who drove the No. 24 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports for the entirety of his Sprint Cup Series career, retired from full-time driving at the conclusion of the 2015 season with 93 career victories, which ranks third all-time.

Waltrip noted that Gordon hasn’t been retired for long and also that Gordon has a record five victories at the Brickyard.

"Jeff will be just fine in the No. 88," Waltrip said. "He will compete at a high level, just like he ended his career in 2015. He’s only been out of the car for a few months and has been at the track every week and around that team. He’s the winningest driver at Indy, and it’s his home track.  If he was going to choose to run a race, it would probably be this one. He’s very enthusiastic about doing it and hasn’t been dragged into it at all."

Waltrip, a NASCAR Hall of Famer and former championship driver in his own right, admitted he is experiencing a touch of jealousy toward his broadcast partner.

"I told Jeff, ‘I want you to do it because I know you will do a great job and probably can win the race.’ But I also told him I’m jealous because I would have loved the opportunity to get in a car like that the last year of my career or even a year or two after I retired," Waltrip said. "If someone had asked me back then if I’d get in a car capable of winning a race, I would have said yes in a heartbeat.

"That’s a no-brainer for a driver. I’m pretty sure Jeff is going into Indy thinking he can and will win that race. It truly wouldn’t surprise me one bit for him to grab that 94th Sprint Cup victory at Indy that he thought he’d never see just a few short months ago. … He might take a few practice laps to get comfortable in the No. 88 car, but it shouldn’t be a problem at all. He should be a contender at Pocono, as well."

While he is happy for Gordon, Waltrip admitted that he feels for Earnhardt and hopes Earnhardt gets well soon.

"The hardest thing I ever had to do was watch someone else drive my car," said Waltrip, who recorded 84 race victories and won three championships in NASCAR’s top series during his Hall of Fame career. "You stand on the sidelines in anguish. Sitting out is very trying for a driver, particularly when you know you probably could drive but just not at 100 percent.

"At least Earnhardt still may have time to come back and qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Waltrip added. Earnhardt will need to win a race, however, before the regular season ends Sept. 10 at Richmond — meaning he would have just five races to do so if he is medically cleared by his doctors to return after Pocono.

"That’s the beautiful thing about the Chase and the exemptions drivers can get to compete for the championship," Waltrip said. "He can sit out a few weeks, if needed, feel better, come back and win a race, be in the top 30 in points and still make the Chase. It’s the toughest thing a driver will ever have to do, but it’s the easiest thing they can do today based on these exemption circumstances."

Meanwhile, Waltrip said it no doubt will be strange for Gordon to be in the No. 88 car — and racing against the No. 24, now driven by Sprint Cup rookie Chase Elliott — during the race at Indy.

"When he has to race against the No. 24 this weekend, that will be a really weird feeling because the only car he ever drove was the 24," Waltrip said. "To climb in another car and compete against your old car — I can’t imagine what that must feel like, but it’s probably one of those surreal, out-of-body experiences."