Wonder man

IT WAS A run-of-the-mill handshake between two Cup competitors in the Atlanta Motor Speedway garage, but one of the men was clearly geeked over what had just happened. "I've known him for a while now, and I know it shouldn't be that big of a deal anymore," says 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, practically vibrating on the September afternoon. "But I mean, it's still Jeff Gordon."

Bayne was 20 months old when Gordon made his Cup debut in 1992. Like most 20-something racers, he grew up with Gordon posters in his locker, wore DuPont apparel and rented Looney Tunes: Back in Action just to see Yosemite Sam drive the No. 24 Chevy up the Vegas Strip. Now that generation of drivers races alongside its inspiration, and it doesn't appear as if the legend will hang up his helmet any time soon -- despite a season that has forced Gordon to stare down career mortality.

The 41-year-old spent the spring struggling through his worst-ever first half of a season. He didn't crack the top 15 in the points standings until late July. Week after week, Gordon wasted good race cars on bad finishes, with untimely accidents and uncharacteristic engine failures. "It would be different if we were terrible," Gordon says, "but we had cars that could win and were still finishing 30th because of nothing but bad luck."

It wasn't all misfortune that held him back. Labor Day weekend at Atlanta, Gordon publicly chided himself for finishing second to Denny Hamlin: "I'm getting soft in my old age. Fifteen years ago, I would have just moved him right up the racetrack."

But one week later, in the regular-season finale at Richmond, Gordon looked young again, taking a car that had been a lap down, racing it furiously up to second and squeezing into the final spot of NASCAR's 12-car postseason field by one point.

"Fans now say to me, 'Jeff, you've got some gray in your hair there, buddy,'" says the man who ranks third on NASCAR's all-time wins list. "Hey, you go through the kind of spring we had and you'll go gray real quick. And don't forget, I also have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old at home."

The driver, long ago pegged Wonder Boy by Dale Earnhardt, used to laugh off the idea of racing past 40. But after his Aug. 5 win at Pocono, as his entire family gathered in a rain-soaked Victory Lane, an emotional Gordon teared up. "I have 86 wins," he said, "but this might be the most special because it's the first where my family can really grasp what's going on and enjoy this."

But none of them, not even Ingrid, his wife of six years, has seen him win a Cup. The last of his four came in 2001. On Nov. 15, Gordon will quietly acknowledge the 20th anniversary of his debut in the circuit then called the Winston Cup. Three days later, in the season finale at Homestead-Miami, he hopes to celebrate much more loudly, having clinched that elusive fifth title. "That's a gift I want to give my family and my crew," he says. "They sacrifice a lot to let me do what I do, and they've never experienced winning a championship. I know we just barely got into the Chase, but I really think I can do this."

Of course he can. He's Jeff Gordon.

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