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Jeff Gordon runs 9th in first practice session at Brickyard

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jeff Gordon tried to have fun in his first practice session Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his first laps in a race car since last November when he thought he had hung up his fire suit for good.

But he couldn't have fun. The four-time Sprint Cup champion had to focus on his new job as a substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is out battling concussion-like symptoms.

"I'm trying to have fun," said Gordon, who was an analyst for the 18-race Fox Sports portion of the schedule. "But I take it too serious to have fun right now. ... I've enjoyed what I've been doing, which has been a challenge of its own and one I've enjoyed.

"The first run out there, I realized why. The intensity level is high [in the garage]. My heart hasn't beat like that in a while. It's an awesome experience. I want to take it in to the fullest."

Gordon, ninth in the first practice session, said his goal is "to not screw it up," and his team will need to work on the balance of the car. He said he felt he was doing the best he could do, but it is difficult to get back in the car after eight months.

In the second practice session of the day, Gordon finished in 25th place.

"When you get to drive a race car like this it certainly just helps you focus on what you need to do out there. Being out of the car that long and not really having a lot of experience with this package it was a tall task, I will be honest. It was one of the most challenging days I've had in a race car to try to get comfortable, be consistent, have the speed and give good feedback," Gordon said.

One thing he did make sure to do: Gordon and the team asked that the speedway take down the placard over his garage that had Gordon's name on it. They want it to say "Dale Earnhardt Jr.," which is consistent with the name across the windshield and above the door.

"I'm honored to be driving Dale's car," Gordon said. "I really am. ... We made a conscious decision this is Dale's car. I'm here until he gets back and I hope that's soon. We want everything to be respectful of him."

The desire to please his business partner and friend Rick Hendrick is what got Gordon to come out of retirement.

With 93 career victories, including five in the Brickyard 400, Gordon will go for another win Sunday as he replaces Earnhardt, who is battling balance issues and nausea likely related to concussions. Gordon, an equity owner in Hendrick Motorsports will also replace Earnhardt next week at Pocono.

"[Hendrick] has never asked me for many things that I can contribute and help that weren't valid and weren't something I was proud to be able to do," Gordon said Friday before practice at IMS. "This is just me helping out the organization.

"We'll see what happens on Sunday. If we're out there having fun and putting a good result together, I can tell you what's in it for me is to make that team proud and not let them down. That's what I did as a race car driver."

Gordon has scrambled to get prepared to race since arriving Tuesday night from a vacation in France. He needed the NASCAR-mandated physical and drug test.

He had to meet with the team to get his seat and steering wheel as well as do other minor tweaks to the car for his preference. He took information from past Hendrick tests at Indianapolis to put data into a Chevrolet simulator in North Carolina that could mimic how the car should feel while racing at Indianapolis.

"That process itself was really interesting and exciting and fun and gotten me pretty fired up to get in the car and feel what it's like to be in there," Gordon said.

"I was at the GM simulator yesterday morning. If we're racing simulators, I feel like I've got a shot at winning this race."

Because he spent the first 18 race weekends of this season working as an analyst, he was unable to fill in for the injured Tony Stewart at the Daytona 500, Gordon said Friday.

Gordon would not commit to any races beyond Pocono, refusing to speculate on when Earnhardt might return.

"My goal is to come here and give this team the best effort that I can and give them the best result -- hopefully a good one," Gordon said.

Coincidentally, Gordon was scheduled to drive the pace car for the race Sunday. Now he'll compete.

"I didn't even have to think twice about it," Gordon said. "When Rick calls, he has that confidence in me and asks me to step up and do something for the organization, whether it was driver or other responsibilities, the way he has been there for me, the way this team and organization has been there for me over the years.

"I didn't anticipate this. This is certainly the last thing I thought was going to happen."

It isn't rare for drivers who have retired from full-time racing to do select races or return in a substitute role. Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, who has announced that this would be his last Sprint Cup season, said he never had thoughts about being a substitute driver for one of the four cars he co-owns until watching what Gordon is doing this week.

"We'll talk about it I'm sure at some point, but I'm definitely open to this scenario if it were to happen down the road and we needed somebody," Stewart said. "I definitely would be open to doing what Jeff is doing this weekend."

By racing this weekend, Gordon could impact when he gets inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For drivers with under 30 years of NASCAR racing and under age 55, they must be retired for two full years before being nominated. NASCAR has not decided whether Gordon will be eligible as if he retired at the end of the 2015 or the 2016 season.

"I'm in no hurry," Gordon said. "I mean first of all, I think there are plenty of big names and personalities in our sport that belong in that Hall of Fame. I'm not even thinking about that right now.

"When that day comes it's going to be a very proud moment and right now I'm just living life and taking what comes at me next and this was a curveball."