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Life was so carefree for Jeff Gordon back in the summer of 1994, when he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 and celebrated by eating pizza at the Brickyard Crossing Inn. Then he was just 23, freshly engaged to a girl he'd met in Victory Lane at Daytona, and in search of his first Cup championship. He was, in the words of his team owner, Rick Hendrick, "just a kid."
Seventeen summers later—after a messy divorce, a second marriage, two children, four Cup titles and $120 million in career winnings—one thing hasn't changed: Gordon is still fast at Indy. With 26 laps remaining on Sunday in the Brickyard 400, Gordon was in 14th place. But then, in an arresting stretch of racing that recalled his younger days, Gordon charged through the field, passing car after car. His lap times were a second faster than leader Paul Menard's, but Gordon ran out of time and finished second as Menard pulled off the biggest upset in the history of stock car racing at the corner of 16th and Georgetown (right).
"I passed all of them but one," said Gordon after the race. "But this showed a lot about this race team. We're prepared to battle for a championship."
More than any other race, Indy has been the most accurate barometer of who will seriously contend for the Cup; four of the last six winners of the race have gone on to win the title. Why is Indy such a revealing event? Because teams spend extra time, effort and money to develop equipment specifically for the Brickyard 400, which is—along with the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and the Coke 600—one of NASCAR's four "majors." Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief, had worked on Gordon's new Chevy for two months before Indy, incorporating all the latest Hendrick Motorsports technology culled from hours of wind-tunnel testing and race-simulation computer programs.
"We're really starting to come on as a team," says Gustafson. "I know for sure right now that no one wants to see Jeff Gordon in the rearview mirror."
On Thursday, Gordon, who stands seventh in points and has two wins in 2011, turns 40—an age at which trips to Victory Lane dramatically decline. But Gordon appears as sharp as ever behind the wheel, even though his interests outside of NASCAR have expanded as he's aged. On July 18 he flew 28 hours to war-ravaged Congo with the Clinton Global Initiative, a philanthropy group led by the former president. Gordon says the trip "changed me forever."
Late on Sunday the changed man giddily hugged his wife, Ingrid, and their four-year-old daughter, Ella, in the Indy infield. He had reason to be happy: For the first time since 2007, when he finished second in the standings, Gordon isn't just a husband and a father. He's also a serious Cup contender.
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For Lars Anderson's Cup previews and analysis, go to SI.com/racing