Jeff Gordon in a comfortable place

Jordan, near the end of his career, and now Manning, talked less of themselves and more of team. Gordon has never forgotten to remember his team, but now he spends more time with them. And though they play it cool, many on his current crew grew up watching him win with the original Rainbow Warriors.

"Back then I'd fly up the shop maybe once or twice a month. I was building a house in Florida," he said. "Now I'm here in Charlotte and I'm up there all the time. Probably too much. But these guys make it fun."

Jordan was a contender, as Manning still is now, until the end of his legendary career. But each experienced this strange days-of-future-past life that Gordon does now -- pursuing success in the present while constantly being asked to recall how it used to be way back when. That's a conversation that will only get louder as Gordon gets older, especially during weekends like the one coming up, when Gordon and Bobby Labonte are likely to be the only two drivers in this year's Brickyard 400 who were also in the inaugural.

Labonte is logging laps. Gordon is in the hunt for a championship.

"I have no problem with the looking back, though I am terrible at remembering details about old races," he says, pointing to longtime rep Jon Edwards and referring to him as his librarian/reminder of past glory details. "There are times when I look around the garage and say, 'Hey, where's Dale Jarrett? Where's Mark Martin? Where's Ricky Rudd?' I know last weekend [at New Hampshire] might have been it for Jeff Burton. But it doesn't feel bad. It feels good because we're relevant as a race team. I'm running up front. As long as that's happening, you can ask me all the old-timer questions you want."

The drive for five

"What would that fifth championship finally mean? Oh man . . . "

Gordon stops and thinks. Then he grins. "I don't have a Sprint Cup. I have four Winston Cups. But it would validate why I've stayed after it. It would be chance to give the moment to this team, guys who really worked hard to get me back to where I am, what they deserve."

Then the Wonder Boy-turned-legend, playboy-turned-family man, movie star-turned-guy in the coffee shop laying low, smiles his biggest smile of the day.

"My kids are old enough now to really enjoy it. To know what it means. It's a whole different feeling now," Gordon said. "When I was younger I felt like I had to change the world. Now that I am older, I am content just to enjoy it. That's because I have people to enjoy it with. I've had so many great times in this sport. But to celebrate a championship with them would be the best of times."

For now, however, time is up. Soon Gordon will arrive in Indianapolis, seeking his fifth Brickyard victory. But first, he is off to do a couple of national TV interviews. Tonight the family is going to fly to Spain for some off-week sightseeing. Before that, he has to pick up Leo from his summer superhero camp.

Afterward, the woman at the table nearby finally decides to speak up.

"That was Jeff Gordon, wasn't it?"

A nod makes her smile. Then she becomes much more serious.

"He's not retiring, is he? Tell him he can't ever retire."

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