Tony Stewart Comments on Jeff Gordon Racing in Brickyard 400

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIJuly 22, 2016

Tony Stewart, right, shares a smile with Jeff Gordon during qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Talladega Superspeedway, Saturday, May 2, 2015, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Russell Norris)
Russell Norris/Associated Press

Longtime NASCAR driver Tony Stewart will make his final Brickyard 400 start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, but he may not be the biggest storyline now that Jeff Gordon is racing.

Gordon retired after last season but is taking the place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who's suffering from concussion-like symptoms.

Stewart spoke Friday about how relieved he is that Gordon is back in action, per Fox Sports' Joe Menzer:

I had a couple of friends send me messages yesterday and they were furious about it going, 'Oh, he is stealing your thunder?' I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? Jeff Gordon is doing me the biggest favor anybody could possibly do this weekend for me. I'm just glad he's back, to be perfectly honest.

I'm sad that Dale, Jr. is not here. But if Dale can't be here and we know why and we respect why he is not here, I couldn't be happier about the one guy that is here in his place. I'm glad I get to race with him one more time.

Stewart, who is from Indiana, is having a homecoming of sorts at a race he's won twice. The three-time Sprint Cup champion had the eighth-best time in Friday's first practice, per Menzer, which was a source of encouragement ahead of Sunday's race.

"I'm probably more prepared for a Brickyard than I have been any other year," Stewart said. "I feel like we had a really good tire test here, felt like our car drove really well."

Coming off a second-place finish in New Hampshire last week, Stewart has reason to be confident and also sharply focused on the task at hand. He's at least publicly downplaying the significance of the race for himself.

To further accentuate Stewart's respect for Gordon, the latter revealed an interesting bit of information Friday as well, per NBC Sports' Dustin Long:

Dustin Long @dustinlong

#NASCAR ... Jeff Gordon said he was asked to drive Tony Stewart's car for the Daytona 500 but couldn't because of Fox duties. @NASCARonNBC

On the strength of Stewart's triumph at Sonoma last month, he's positioned himself for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup—as long as he stays in the top 30 in the points standings, where he ranks 28th entering Sunday's race. There's not as much pressure to push for the checkered flag as a result, so Stewart should be a prime contender as long as he qualifies somewhere near the front.

As for Gordon, NASCAR fans have to be rejoicing to see him back, much like Stewart is. However, the Brickyard 400 isn't the stock-car spectacle it used to be, requiring unique narratives like the ones surrounding Stewart and Gordon to generate buzz.

"We are looking for big stories because you know that when they come along it creates a lot of buzz and interest and gives you a lot to talk about," Gordon said, per ESPN.com's John Oreovicz. "So I'm sure the folks at NBC are going to have plenty to talk about here on Sunday."

Gordon is slated to return for only two races, but there's no denying his start this week adds a neat wrinkle to the Brickyard 400 coverage.

Stewart will be finished on the Sprint Cup circuit at the end of the 2016 campaign. Instead of focusing on sentimentality and taking a victory lap through his final season, he appears determined to go out with a flourish of quality racing.