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."

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."

Changing one's game

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.)

He says he wants to talk to the kids, but they will need to come to him if they want advice. That's how it worked for him when he first showed up. He remembers qualifying third for the 1994 Brickyard race, but nearly wrecking in the process. The next day he read Richard Petty's comments that it would have been foolish to destroy a race car trying to find extra qualifying speed when someone was already clearly the fastest car on the track. A racer should save that stuff for the actual race.

"Richard was sending me a message because he wanted me to be better. From then on, if I needed advice, I knew to go ask for it. I have my thoughts on the young guys and I want to help them get better like I still want to get better."

He is getting better. Take restarts. NASCAR's loop data reveals that one year ago, Gordon ranked 15th among all drivers when it came to speed on restarts, measuring top speed reached over the first two green flag laps. This year he's sixth. (Loop data also backs up his claims of being best on long runs. He ranks a solid first.)

"I think I've always been good on restarts. No one is getting through the gearbox better or not spinning his tires better than I am. That hasn't changed. But now I've backed up my approach. I start that process back in Turns 3 and 4. It's not just hitting the start-finish line and Turns 1 and 2."

And where the process was once almost solely horsepower-based during the first stanza of his career, Gordon now factors in aerodynamics as much as throttle. "I'm constantly searching for clean air. Moving a little to the right or a little to the left to get the nose of the car into clean air. Add all of that up and now you're going."

Age-based adjustments

To someone who has watched Gordon throughout his 21-year Cup career, watching him alter his approach is both beautiful and painful. It's the legendary athlete reshaping his game, gently fighting off the calendar and his own body by working with them. It's the racing equivalent to Michael Jordan developing a fadeaway jumper to replace the skywalking dunk or Peyton Manning opting for a safety valve pass-and-catch just up ahead instead simply dynamiting his way downfield with his arm.

Jordan talked of watching film to find flaws on the floor to exploit. Gordon sits down with Dartfish, the same video program used by football coaches to break down film, to watch how rivals attack qualifying laps and the dance of restrictor-plate racing. Manning, already a film junkie, has become increasingly immersed in data, fraction-of-a-second timing of routes and the tiniest measurements of arm mechanics. Gordon pores over data recorded by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, which for a decade has all been dumped into a sharing system for any and all to investigate. It's a far cry from the team he walked into in 1993, when multicar teams were still a new experiment.

"When we were running against our teammate for the championship in 1996 [he lost to Terry Labonte], we shared nothing. They had their deal and we had ours. Now it's all on the table. That's why we brought in Jimmie Johnson, to start sharing and make everyone better. Unfortunately, we didn't keep up. But now they've helped us -- and me -- get better. It's a new world from the way it used to be."

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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