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SONOMA — Kyle Larson was a babe of 3-1/2 months when Jeff Gordon made his NASCAR Winston Cup Series (as it was then called) debut, in the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta. A few years after that, Larson owned a Jeff Gordon outfit and a die-cast No. 24 car, and had a poster hanging in his room that featured Gordon admonishing kids to "STAY IN SCHOOL." He bought the poster at a book fair.

"Everybody was a Jeff Gordon fan," said Larson, now the hot young rookie in the Sprint Cup (as it is called now) Series. "He grew up in Vallejo, close to where I grew up (in Elk Grove), kind of. He grew up racing sprint cars and midgets and stuff on dirt tracks, and that's kind of what I wanted to do as a kid, is follow his career path. And he was the best, too."

All these years later, here's the surprise: Gordon is still the best. He comes to his "home track," Sonoma Raceway, with the Sprint Cup points lead for the first time since 2007.

"This should be his wheelhouse, coming here this weekend," driver Brad Keselowski said. "He got to test here. He's had great cars. He's got a lot of momentum. I would not be shocked at all — if anything, I would say he's the favorite to win this weekend."

Gordon once dominated this course, just as he once dominated the sport. He has won here five times (no one else has more than two victories at Sonoma), and he has four Cup championships to his name. But Gordon hasn't taken the checkered flag at Sonoma since 2006, and his most recent season title was in 2001.

Make no mistake, he has remained highly competitive, finishing outside the top 10 just once in the past decade. But Gordon will be 43 in August. His retirement, when and why it might occur, has become a popular topic of conversation in racing circles, though Gordon has rarely given it credence.

"I don't plan on quitting anytime soon," he said Friday.

And why would he, considering how he's been running in 2014? Gordon has 11 top-10 finishes in 15 races this year, including two second-place results and a victory at Kansas Speedway on May 10.

"Honestly, I think they've been finishing where they've been running," said Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. "And the last two, three, four years it seems like fast cars, laps led, running well, but not the finishes you hope that you would have — or that he would hope that he would have, based on the first half of the race. They're finishing off the races."

And Gordon isn't the only one. The Hendrick team has been crushing the competition in 2014, with Gordon leading the standings, Johnson second and Dale Earnhardt Jr. third. Those three have combined to win the past five races. Only Kasey Kahne, ranked 19th, has been struggling, and he joined his teammates, who all had top 10s at Michigan last weekend.

Hendrick will tie the modern record — its own record, established in 2007 — with six consecutive victories if any of the four win here Sunday.

Some would say the biggest reason for the streak is the engine developed by team owner Rick Hendrick. After finishing third at Michigan, Keselowski told reporters that it will likely take other teams an entire season to catch up to the Hendrick engine.

Gordon acknowledges that Hendrick is putting explosive cars on the track right now, but argued that it disparages dozens of team members — from strategists to pit crews to drivers — to focus solely on the motors.

"I definitely saw some cars at Michigan last week that were not Hendrick cars that didn't need to be complaining about their engines," Gordon said. "They were getting down the straightaway plenty good. We were really beating'em in the corner, though. All I know is over the years, when other teams are complaining about us, that's usually when things are going really well for us.

"It's like getting booed. When you're getting boos that's usually a good sign."

About the only thing that went wrong for Gordon this year was when his back went into spasms at Charlotte about a month ago. Gordon dropped out of Saturday practice that weekend and received two cortisone shots later that day. The pain was so intense, in fact, that Hendrick brought in Regan Smith as a potential relief driver for the No. 24 car, though Gordon gutted out the grueling 600-mile race that Sunday.

This was a significant development for Gordon, who has admitted that he considered retirement after experiencing back pain in 2008 and 2009, caused by degenerative disks in his lower back and arthritis.

Gordon said Friday that he has been applying ice and electrical stimulation to his back since Charlotte, in addition to his normal stretching regimen, and that he's feeling pretty good as this race approaches.

"I'm happy," Gordon said. "As hard as you're braking (at Sonoma), and all the shifting out here, I was a little concerned. But it's gone really well. The plane ride out was harder than anything so far, just sitting there for five, six hours."

Returning to Northern California has always been a happy occasion for Gordon, though it may be a stretch to call this his home track.

He grew up 20 minutes away, but never actually saw the road course here until he raced it in 1993.

Before that, he was too busy racing those sprint cars and midgets all over the state, and then the country, and much of early racing success came after his family relocated to Indiana when Gordon was 15.

Still, this is home. He has many friends and relatives here, including his 16-year-old cousin, James Bickford, who lives in Napa. James' father, Tom, is the brother of Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford, who helped raise Gordon from infancy. Now James is following in his older cousin's footsteps. On Saturday he drove in the Carneros 200, a race in NASCAR's lower-tier K&N Pro Series West, and was running in the top 10 before transmission trouble knocked him out.

The day before he raced at Fontana in March, Gordon watched Bickford run at a short track in Irwindale.

"I gave him a headset, and he was up in a suite watching," Tom Bickford said. "He was pretty excited when he was watching James race. He wanted to get on the radio and talk to him, but I happened to give him a radio that didn't talk."

When Gordon came to Sonoma to test tires a few days later, he took James Bickford around the track for a good hour and pointed out where opponents might try to get under him, the best places to pass, how to shift, how to approach the corners, etc.

It was as if Gordon could remember when he was the precocious hotshot, and took delight in passing down his knowledge.

Gordon is loved by more than family here, of course. He remains the popular pick in Northern California.

"My truck driver was saying, in the truck parade we had (Thursday) night in Sacramento, he said he saw 24 hats everywhere," Gordon noted. "That is not necessarily the case in Johnson City, Tenn."

Saturday at Sonoma Raceway, the faithful included a cat wearing Jeff Gordon bandannas.

"Two of my biggest fans, the cat and the lady holding the cat," Gordon said. "Did you see the tattoos as well? The cat, I don't know, it may have tattoos also."

Gordon made an astute observation, acknowledging that people tend to root for a winner as much as they do the hometown hero. That's what drew in fans when he was in his prime, and that's what is reeling them back into his orbit now. Yes, it helps to be the points leader, even when you're Jeff Gordon.

"We're happy with that, but at the same time we know we've gotta keep pushing harder and harder because, I mean, we got Jimmie Johnson right there next to us with two more wins than us," Gordon said. "So we know we need to get to Victory Lane a few more times."

And why not start here in Sonoma, where his reputation as a great road-course racer was established, and where the cats may or may not have Gordon's likeness tattooed beneath their fur?

(You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.)

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