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.