- Associated Press - Saturday, September 1, 2012

HAMPTON, GA. (AP) - Jeff Gordon is back at the track where he made his Cup debut 20 years ago.

Gordon will mark the occasion with a special paint scheme on his No. 24 Chevrolet for Sunday night’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Time flies,” Gordon said. “Right from the beginning, this was a special place for me.”

Back in 1992, no one noticed a 21-year-old from Indiana racing in the Cup series for the first time. There were much bigger stories in that final race of the season, which featured a thrilling three-way battle for the championship and Richard Petty’s farewell.

Gordon crashed out of the race after 164 laps and wound up 31st.

“Back then, you could go and test at the track before you raced at the track,” he said. “I remember coming here and testing, running really fast, qualifying not going well for us, but they had second-round qualifying back then on the Saturday. We were fastest in the second round. We had a fast race car.”

But he wasn’t quite ready to run with the giants of the sport.

That would come a few years later.

“My inexperience got the best of me, getting loose, backing into the wall,” Gordon recalled, as though it happened yesterday.

Perhaps the most compelling moment came before the race, when Petty’s imminent retirement and enormous contributions to the sport was acknowledged during the drivers meeting.

“I was very proud to be part of it,” Gordon said. “Here is a legend in our sport that will never be topped. Nobody is every going to win 200 races, yet I was able to be part of a fairly intimate setting and hear him speak at the drivers meeting on what his career meant to him, how much he appreciated so many things and the fans and the competitors. That was very, very cool to be a part of that. I certainly remember that.

“But,” Gordon quickly added, “I also remember my day not ending too well.”

Since then, he has joined Petty as one of the greats of the sport, capturing four Cup championships and 86 career victories, which puts him third behind only the King and David Pearson (105).

The Atlanta track went on to produce some of Gordon’s most memorable moments, including his 85th win a year ago, moving him past Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison on the career list.

“It’s such a fun racetrack,” Gordon said.

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