Jeff Gordon in a comfortable place

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon slips into the chair at the coffeehouse, sets down his nonfat cappuccino, slides a second drink across the table, and offers up a handshake and an apology, smiling. "They were out of bottled water, so you're going to have to settle for Charlotte's finest." The cups both have "Jeff" scribbled on them, which the woman seated at the table behind him has just noticed. Her eyes grow large. Her shoulders tense, as if she's going to say something, but instead, she looks down at her own beverage to try and play it cool.

The Artist Formerly Known As Wonder Boy is showing a little gray in the temples and the beginnings of crow's feet around the eyes. He is the motorsports anomaly. The guy who gets older, but is still fast. Every race tacks another digit onto the growing mountain of amazing numbers, from laps led to top-5s to whatever stats you can dream up. But after some time spent wandering in the wilderness, a full 13 seasons removed from the last of his four NASCAR Cup Series championships, the kid who changed the sport is back sitting atop its peak.

This weekend marks the 20-year anniversary of his win in the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the moment that transferred him onto NASCAR's top shelf and kick-started his move into the American sports mainstream. One week later he will celebrate his 43rd birthday. Both milestones will no doubt bring another chorus of the question that has become a part of his weekly race routine:

Hey, Jeff, when are you going to retire?

The R word

As he sits here during the final off-week of the 2014 season, he is anything but an old guy clocking laps and collecting checks. He's arguably the most relevant he's been in several seasons. On April 7, he finished second at Texas Motor Speedway, taking over the top spot in the Sprint Cup standings for the first time in five years. He's held that spot for all but one week since, a period of time during which he picked up his 89th career win at Kansas on May 10, but also suffered debilitating back spasms that nearly sidelined him at Charlotte just two weekends later.

When he returned to the track the following weekend at Dover, he skirted mortality by admitting: "I can tell you that if that happens many more times, I won't have a choice." What the room didn't know was that he was just a few days removed from an epidural, a pain-management procedure most commonly associated with women in the middle of childbirth. That Sunday he finished 15th and lost his points lead. The next week at Pocono he finished eighth, went back into the lead, and hasn't relinquished it since. Thanks to changes in the ergonomics of his Chevy's cockpit, his back hasn't hurt, either. Not as much anyway.

"The race car has really become the most comfortable place for me to be," he explains, between sharing details of the icing and stretching he must do each day to keep his lumbar loosened. "It's everyday life where it can get to me now. There are days I can barely pick up my kids. I went camping with Leo [his 4-year-old son] a couple of weeks ago and woke up one morning and couldn't stand up. There are certain racetracks that cause it to give me trouble, but the race car is really where I can go now and not hurt."

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