SPARTA — Back in the 1990s, when a 20-something Jeff Gordon was setting NASCAR ablaze, Dale Earnhardt the elder famously nicknamed his young rival "Wonder Boy."
Now, it is jarring to see Gordon, 42, and realize he is an elder statesman in the Sprint Cup garage. The gray hairs peek out from beneath Gordon's black Hendrick Motorsports baseball cap. He acknowledges his back aches.
On Saturday night, when the green flag drops on the fourth Sprint Cup Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, Gordon will be racing for a unique achievement.
If the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet wins, it will mean that Gordon has at least one victory on all 23 of the current Sprint Cup tracks.
"It would be very cool," Gordon said of victory at Kentucky. "I feel like we've run solid the last few times (fifth in 2012; eighth last year) we've been here. I feel like as strong as our cars have been this year, this is possibly the most legitimate chance we've had of crossing (Kentucky Speedway) off the list."
On Wednesday at the White House, President Obama compared six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson — Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, his employee (Gordon owns part of the No. 48 team) and his one-time protégé — to Michael Jordan.
Once, it was Gordon who personified NASCAR excellence.
In 1998, Gordon logged a staggering 26 top-five finishes in a 33-race schedule while winning 13 times.
It was the final year of a three-year stretch in which Gordon won 33 Cup races.
With maestro crew chief Ray Evernham, Gordon claimed Cup championships in 1995, '97 and '98, then added a fourth with Robbie Loomis atop his pit box in 2001.
With good health, Gordon then seemed all but assured to tie or surpass the record of seven Cup season championships shared by NASCAR giants Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Instead, the second part of Gordon's career has been characterized by a series of "What ifs?"
What if Evernham had not left Hendrick in 1999 to start his own race team?
Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus, often compared to Evernham, has been with Johnson for his entire Cup career and the result has been six championships (so far).
What if NASCAR had not enacted the Chase for the Sprint Cup format to choose its champion?
Under the old points system, Gordon would have been the season champ in 2004 and 2007. That would have altered by 180 degrees the perception of the second part of his career.
As it is, Gordon has been stalled on four championships. He's won "only" eight races total since 2008.
Yet if Gordon's elusive "drive to five" is ever going to reach its destination, 2014 could be the time. Gordon comes to Kentucky Speedway with one victory (Kansas) this season. He is first in the traditional points standings.
"I know that the speed is there. I know that the desire is there," Johnson said of Gordon's championship hopes. "I see a guy that loves his job and is highly committed to it in all of our meetings. He's got spring in his step and is ready to go racing."
NASCAR's new format for The Chase — a series of three, three-race knockout rounds that will yield one final race in which four drivers will compete for the season championship — seems to intrigue Gordon.
"I think it is going to be exciting. I'm looking forward to it," Gordon said. "It's certainly going to be intense."
In the new Chase, any race win will automatically advance a driver to the next round. The four lowest-rated drivers in points will be eliminated after every three races until four are standing for the final race.
Gordon has already been thinking about Chase strategy.
"Everybody keeps talking about how important it is to win (races)," he said. "I don't think it's that important to win the first couple of rounds. I think it is important to run really solid. I think after those first knockout rounds, then you are really going to have to be on your A Game."
More immediately, the guy who has won more career Cup races (89) than anyone in the "modern era" (post-1972) of NASCAR would dearly love to add one more on the rough-and-rugged Kentucky Speedway.
It would be pretty cool going through life able to say you'd won a race on every Cup track you ever drove upon.
"That would mean a lot," Jeff Gordon said. "It would be quite an accomplishment and it is something I would love to say I've done."
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.