He doesn't mind the retirement questions. He gets it. But he's also quick to address it. "I don't believe in retirement, number one," he says pointedly but politely. "I think that I won't always be a full-time Cup driver. That time is coming. Will my back play a role in that happening sooner rather than later? It's very possible. It seems to be the one limiting factor that I have right now."
He admits to having set retirement timetables before, only to tear them up and throw them away. He laughs when confronted with a statement he once made at a much younger age that "I can promise you that I won't be racing into my 40s like Kenny Schrader." And he recognizes that people seem anxious to write that timetable for him, particularly race fans and the racing media as Chase Elliott, teenaged son of Bill and a Hendrick Motorsports contract racer, continues to burn up the Nationwide Series. Ultimately, though, when, where and how it all ends for Gordon is no one's call but Gordon's -- he has a lifetime contract with team owner Rick Hendrick.
"We seem to go about every six months and then Rick and I have the conversation. How's the back ... Here's the deal with the team ... Here's the deal with our sponsors ... all these things. Then I win at Kansas and it doesn't take long before he says, 'Well, you're running pretty good, so you're good to go?' and I say 'Yeah, let's go.' So there's no plan. There's no countdown. I'm racing."
Racing has changed, albeit subtly, so much so that it even seems to sneak up on Gordon himself. When asked about his approach behind the wheel now versus the days when he was winning races and Cups in bunches, he initially says it hasn't changed at all. But as he continues to address the subject, he can't help but laugh as he catches a few contradictions.
"I'm more patient now. More calm with my approach," he explains. "But I don't feel any different. I feel like I've always been a patient racer. Maybe now I'm not as aggressive as often as I used to be. Sometimes maybe to a fault. But overall if I'm making fewer mistakes, if I'm letting the race come to me, then it will. And when I need to be aggressive, I can certainly still do that, too. Now it's about knowing when that time is. Not all the time."
He describes a handful of laps from just the day before. He was running behind two of NASCAR's most promising youngsters, former Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and this year's Cup rookie phenom, a fellow Californian with open roots, Kyle Larson. He watched the pair run door-to-door, banging wheels, jumping into the gas early, and sliding their cars deep into the turns. "You kids go right ahead," Gordon thought to himself, driving a smoother line by himself, saving his equipment for later in this particular green flag, as well as the race itself. Soon he eased by them on the inside as they slid around on old, worn-out tires. (Larson finished third and Stenhouse ninth. Both were running behind Gordon when he ran out of fuel after the race was extended four extra laps.)