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Gordon hopes to drive "as long as I can"

CONCORD, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon looked like a bank executive wearing a black pinstripe suit as he toured the new NorthEast Medical Center Children's Hospital bearing his name.

He sounded like a father as he looked forward to discovering next month the gender of his first child. Gordon's new bride, Ingrid Vandebosch, is due to give birth in about six months.

But as busy as life off the track has become for the four-time Nextel Cup champion, don't look for him to hang up his driver's suit anytime soon.

Gordon, 35, hopes to compete on NASCAR's premier circuit well past his current contract with Hendrick Motorsports, which expires in 2010. He might go 10 years beyond that, perhaps longer if he can work out a limited schedule the way Mark Martin has for next season.

"I want to do it as long as I can," Gordon said Saturday before the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Jeff Gordon Children's Hospital. "I've always said as long as I'm competitive and healthy and enjoying being out there [I want to do this], and right now I definitely am.

"Who knows? Things change. Life changes."

Gordon's life certainly has changed. Had somebody told him two years ago he now would be married, expecting a child and dedicating a $10.3 million facility that his charitable foundation made possible with an initial $1 million donation, he would have "thought they were nuts."

"Although Ingrid and I were dating and I knew she was an amazing woman, I think I was still in denial," said Gordon, referring to his attitude toward relationships, one that was scarred by the end of his first marriage.

Nothing scared Gordon from getting involved in building this hospital, which officially opens Monday.

He has been all about helping children since being introduced to the then-1-year-old son of former crew chief Ray Evernham in 1992. Ray J. Evernham's bout with leukemia prompted Gordon to get involved with raising awareness about bone marrow donations.

His work with the Leukemia Society earned him the 1996 True Value Man of the Year Award.

But the man who this past season eclipsed $80 million in career earnings never imagined then that he'd be in a financial position to help build a children's hospital.

"What racing has brought to me is far more than the monetary side of it, the trophies and things like that," said Gordon, who has 75 career wins. "How the sport has grown and the success I've been able to have, it's opened up this whole other window of opportunity to help people and be able to give back.

"To me, this is the ultimate. We've raised a lot of money over the last six or seven years with the Jeff Gordon Foundation and have given that money to great organizations. But I don't think any of those are as evident in that gift as something like this."

The hospital, which has features ranging from flat-screen televisions in every room to an Internet cafe to "smart glass" doors that go from see-through to cloudy in a matter of seconds, is as state-of-the-art as Gordon's race team.

It's also as bright and colorful as Gordon's Chevrolet, with twinkling lights on the ceiling and a wave theme at every turn.

"In talking to the doctors and staff, they say it really and truly is like a race team," Gordon said. "They have to have the best equipment, the best people to provide the best performance for the treatment of these kids.

"You can just see the excitement in their eyes of what they have to work with. It reminds me of when I go out on the racetrack and I know what kind of equipment I have."

Gordon had a hand in the decor as well, donating photos he took of animals during an African safari this time a year ago.

Those pictures were transformed into a theme in which images of the elephant, lion, giraffe and gazelle were integrated into the arches near the front entrance, with the words strength, courage, perseverance and determination accompanying them.

What you don't see are pictures of Gordon or his familiar No. 24 car outside a few of the 753 tiles painted by children to be used on the entrance floor.

There also is a tile bearing Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 and another with the name "Bubba."

The latter, Gordon jokingly said, is under consideration for his child.

"Bubba or Jeff Jr.," he said.

No Earnhardt Jr.?

"Too much pressure," Gordon said, laughing.

Gordon can't wait for the tile floor to be covered with children on the mend so they can live out their dreams the way he has lived out his.

"You hate the fact that there is that need," he said. "But the truth of the matter is there is."

And as long as Gordon continues to drive and earn millions, he hopes to fulfill that need.

"When I meet a sick boy or girl, all I want is for them to be able to live out their dreams," he said. "It's really incredible to be a part of this, to have a facility like this and have my name associated with it, and know all the kids that are going to be treated here."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.