Jeff Gordon shifts gears

With daughter Ella in his arms, Jeff Gordon stands by his Chevy on the Atlanta Motor Speedway grid, flashing that steely-eyed smile. "Pretty cool, huh?" he says to his 3-year-old, about the 24 car's special paint scheme, the one she designed. Then the 38-year-old vet does something rare for him. He gets reflective.

Gordon is typically future-focused, politely rerouting questions about his 82 wins and four Cup titles to talk about the next ones. But just before his 606th career start he finds himself recalling that very first one: "It was here at Atlanta. I was just a kid. Now I'm here with my kid. It's amazing." If he really thought about it, Gordon would realize what everyone else has long taken for granted: that he's the guy who changed the face of NASCAR.

On Nov. 15, 1992, Gordon, then 21 and sporting an awkward mustache, was way over his head against the likes of Dale Earnhardt and, in his final race, Richard Petty. "All Jeff had in his briefcase was a car magazine, a Game Boy and a jar of peanuts," says his former crew chief Ray Evernham. "I guess in case he got hungry reading or playing video games."

No one knew it at the time, but they were watching the start of the Gordon era -- a decade in which, snatching the torch from Petty and Earnhardt, he took NASCAR to places it had never imagined. He co-hosted Live With Regis and Kelly, hosted Saturday Night Live and made movie cameos with Queen Latifah and Yosemite Sam. Today, female fans pack grandstands, and Madison Avenue runs a permanent detour through the garage.

Gordon also paved a path for open-wheelers and West Coasters, from Tony Stewart to Kevin Harvick to handpicked protégé Jimmie Johnson, who assumed the throne faster than Gordon expected, or likes. "All these drivers flew here on private jets," Petty says, eyeing Gordon as he doles out advice to 20-year-old wunderkind Joey Logano. "Tomorrow they'll be off to shoot commercials. And that kid showed them the way."

Gordon always swore he wouldn't race past 40. But now, after son Leo's arrival on Aug. 9 and stuck in the longest slump of his career, retirement has been put on hold. "I want my children to be old enough to see me succeed in racing." And maybe reclaim his legacy? "That, too."

As the sun's rays cocoon Ella and her daddy, he whispers to her about that first race. He begins to point to where it ended in a crash, then catches himself. "We don't talk about wrecks or show pictures of me wrecking," he says. "I don't want to upset her." He unfurls a now-weathered Wonder Boy grin. "So let's not show her any pictures of that mustache."