Photo courtesy of IMSA

Jeff Gordon getting black and blue chasing shiny Rolex watch

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Jeff Gordon straightened his left arm to expose bruises around his elbow. They were the only ones he could show without taking off his clothes.

The four-time NASCAR champion has black-and-blue marks from the middle of his back to the back of his knees, remnants from hours of practicing driver changes before the Rolex 24 at Daytona this weekend. Gordon, who is driving in the prestigious endurance race for the first time in a decade, shared pictures of his injuries with his Wayne Taylor Racing teammates.

“They looked like war wounds,” teammate Jordan Taylor said Friday. “He looked like he got hit by a mortar.”

Taylor was obviously exaggerating, but Gordon made it clear the physical toll has been one of the toughest parts of getting back in a sports car for the first time since 2007.

“It looked like somebody had beaten me up pretty badly,” Gordon said.

It’s a small price to pay for what Gordon called a “dream scenario.” He retired from full-time racing after the 2015 season and took a less-rigorous job in the Fox Sports broadcast booth.

He didn’t rule out driving select events – he subbed for former NASCAR teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in eight races last year – and when Wayne Taylor called to gauge his interest in driving in the 24-hour race, Gordon jumped at the opportunity.

“It was a slam-dunk for me,” said Gordon, who helped Wayne Taylor Racing to a third-place finish in 2007. “What prevented me from doing it other years was the commitment. You really want to be in the car in December. You want to be in the car in January. You want to be in the car as much as you can, especially with this type of car being so much different than NASCAR, stock car.”

IMSA officials lauded Gordon’s decision. Although several IndyCar regulars are in the event, Gordon is the only NASCAR star in the 55-car field. Fellow NASCAR regulars Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip and AJ Allmendinger have driven the Rolex in recent years.

“Hard to put into words somebody with the motorsport accomplishments of Jeff Gordon to be a part of a race like the Rolex 24,” IMSA CEO Ed Bennett said. “He’s known worldwide. It’s a big shot in the arm, I think, for the attention of the sport and we’re just thrilled to have him. It’s the kind of thing you could never plan for. It’s just wonderful to see it come together the way it did. But he’s a superstar. We’re really proud he’s here.”

Gordon is expected to be the second driver behind the wheel of the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac when the green flag drops Saturday in the 55th running of the event . Ricky Taylor is scheduled to start the race, and Gordon is slated to replace him.

Gordon has gotten plenty of seat time over the last three months, first testing in Charlotte, North Carolina, in November and then at Daytona in December and again in early January. He also got hours of simulator time in Indianapolis. Driver changes were a significant part of the process, with the team knowing how much time can be lost and gained on pit road.

“I think the biggest challenge for me is the unknown,” Gordon said. “It’s an unfamiliar car, so you don’t have a lot of experience in it, and it’s capable of doing a lot, so you have to push yourself. If you push yourself in the car too hard at certain times, you get yourself in a lot of trouble and cost yourself the whole race. It’s about managing traffic and what the tires are capable of giving you at different times.

“It’s exciting. It’s fun. But mentally … when I go to lay my head down on the pillow at night, I’m running through all those things throughout the night.”

He probably should have another concern.

Jordan Taylor is well known as a jokester and has been plotting to prank his new teammate. He dressed up as a Jeff Gordon fan – he donned 1980s sunglasses, a fake mustache, a NASCAR hat and a colorful DuPont jacket – at a recent test session and tried to get Gordon to sign an autograph. Gordon figured it out quickly.

“I think I know a way I can get him,” said Taylor, whose team finished second or third in each of the last four Rolex races.

Taylor plans to sneak into Gordon’s motorhome and hide a Bluetooth-enabled speaker. And then late one night, he will start blaring Backstreet Boys tunes.

Taylor can only hope the antics don’t cause Gordon to do any more damage to his backside.

“I’m playing pranks on one of my childhood heroes now,” Taylor said. “That’s pretty cool.”

More AP auto racing: http://www.racing.ap.org

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.