TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — With flecks of gray in his sideburns, it's apparent that Jeff Gordon is long removed from those days as a hotshot young driver who seemed destined to win more NASCAR Cup championships than anyone.
Heck, not too long ago people were wondering if he was all washed up.
Well, look who's in contention for a Sprint Cup championship.
Yep, the guy they used to call Wonder Boy.
"I just like the fact that you're talking about that," Gordon said Friday, chatting with a reporter outside his hauler. "That means things are happening for us. It's been so long. I don't know what it feels like anymore to win a championship."
It's been 12 long years, to be exact, since Gordon captured the last of his four titles.
But he heads into Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway ranking fourth in the points and hoping to take advantage of a track where the standings can change in a hurry.
"I don't even know if I have the words to describe how much it would mean," Gordon said. "The longer you're in the sport, the more ups and downs you go through, the more meaningful the wins and the championships. Certainly nothing would top that."
He knows he's still a long shot, with Matt Kenseth and teammate Jimmie Johnson holding down the top two spots. Gordon trails Kenseth by 36 points and Johnson by 32 — a lot of ground to make up. The odds that both will suddenly go into a slump is a stretch, to say the least, and Kevin Harvick also stands between Gordon and the top spot.
But at Talladega, where restrictor plates lead to tight racing and big crashes, there's always a chance to make a big move — up or down.
Besides, it's already rather improbable that Gordon still has a chance for his fifth championship.
In the last race before the Chase, it looked as though he had come up one point shy of the 12-driver playoff. Then, NASCAR uncovered all sorts of shenanigans among teams trying to lock up their spot or help out a teammate, leading to the unprecedented decision to add Gordon as a 13th driver in the playoff.
He's doing his best to take advantage of the second chance, finishing in the top 10 in four of the first five Chase races.
He also understands why so many people began writing him off in recent years, the sport he once dominated seemingly passing him by.
"You know, I get it," Gordon said. "It's all about performance and stats in this sport."
While he never totally faded away, the last serious run at a title came way back in 2007, when Gordon won six times and finished second behind Johnson.
If nothing else, the long dry spell has made Gordon realize how much he took all those titles in his 20s for granted.
"Oh gosh, I can tell you I didn't appreciate the first one near enough," he said. "To have what, 11 or 12 years now in between our last one, you better believe I would appreciate it a lot more."
To make a run at Kenseth and Johnson, Gordon will likely need to win a race or two — something he hasn't done all season.
That's where things get a big tricky.
"I feel like I'm definitely a more patient and smarter driver today," Gordon said, before quickly adding, "Anytime a driver says that, it means that's probably not putting it out there on the edge quite as much as he used to. So, you've got to take the pros and cons of what you've learned over the years and where you're at. I feel like in some ways, I'm probably not putting myself in vulnerable positions enough and pushing the limits of it. But on the flip side of that, I'm bringing the car home in one piece a lot more often."
Another Hendricks Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., said Gordon seems as driven as ever to win another title.
"How he goes through the process of working a race weekend, being tenacious, trying to figure out the car, working with the crew, utilizing practice, putting in the effort, that desire is as strong as it's always been as far as I can tell," Earnhardt said. "He's got the confidence that he's the best guy out there and he wants to prove that every week. You can see that in his demeanor and his body language."
No matter how the season turns out, Gordon has gotten another taste of what it's like to be in the mix.
He likes the feeling.
"Earlier in the year, people wrote me off and said, 'When are you going to retire?'" Gordon said, with plenty of satisfaction in his voice. "Now everybody is like, 'Wow, look at this guy. Where did he come from? He's back. He's got that confidence and that smile.' Well, yeah. Because the cars have been awesome and as a team, we're coming together at the right time and putting great efforts out there and results.
"That's fun. That's what I like to do."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963