Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

Jeff Gordon on choosing potential No. 48 replacement: ‘We’re not there yet’

CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson’s impending retirement from full-time NASCAR competition has already kicked off next year’s silly season with one big, tipping domino. The seven-time champion’s decision to step away creates one of the highest-profile vacancies in the garage with Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 Chevrolet for 2021.

Team owner Rick Hendrick must have anticipated he’d be asked about a possible successor at Thursday’s retirement press conference, so he didn’t hesitate. “I’ve already kind of picked a guy,” Hendrick said, almost promising to drop one bombshell of news on top of another. Then came the punchline: “Jeff Gordon’s coming back.”

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The joke landed, especially with Gordon in the front row to see Johnson formally set his retirement plan in motion. But both Hendrick and Gordon, who holds an executive role with the organization, indicated their more immediate focus is giving Johnson his best chance for success in his farewell season.

“I can tell you right now, we’re not looking,” Gordon said. “It’s just because we’re not there yet. This is the most important thing right now is focusing on Jimmie going out on top that he deserves. I think he wants it, his drive is there. I think the connection between he and Cliff (Daniels, No. 48 crew chief) is there. We’ve not done a good enough job giving him the equipment the last couple years, and we’re very focused on that. So we’ve got some time before we need to think about that, and I think when we get closer to that process, we’ll keep you guys informed as we can.”

While no firm timetable was revealed for setting the 2021 driver lineup in Thursday’s press conference, one significant component is already decided. Ally Financial announced in October that it would extend its backing of the No. 48 team through the 2023 season. Hendrick said that his company has been forthright with Ally about the possibility of Johnson’s looming retirement, but that he anticipated Ally would rally behind the seven-time champ “like you’ve never seen anyone send a guy out before.”

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Gordon seconded that, saying that Ally has remained positive about the team’s direction for 2021, a season that will usher in even more change with the advent of the Next-Gen car for NASCAR’s top division. Both are anticipated to be factors in the selection process.

“They’re really very supportive and wide open to what happens,” Gordon said of Ally. “(In) ’21, definitely things are going to change, so we’ve got to evaluate and look at what type of driver is going to suit that car.”