- Associated Press - Thursday, September 8, 2011

Jeff Gordon never went away. It only seemed that way.

Throughout the past decade, he always was behind the wheel of that familiar No. 24 Chevrolet, winning more races than most, perennially claiming a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But the titles dried up, his domination of the sport ceded to a protege and teammate, no less.

“I’ve been trying to step it up for 10 years,” Gordon said.

Well, looks who’s in the thick of things again.

No one who watched Tuesday’s rain-delayed race at Atlanta Motor Speedway - especially those last 10 laps - could deny this is a guy who’s found his old spark at age 40, racing with all the nerve, skill and bravado of … well, a young Jeff Gordon.

He went bumper to bumper with five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, the two of them pushing their cars to the limit and then some. They were sliding all over the track on worn-out tires, fishtailing this way and that as they struggled to keep their machines off the wall.

Johnson kept trying to put his car in front. Gordon just wouldn’t let him past, taking the checkered flag for his third Cup win of the season and 85th of his career. Only two others drivers — Richard Petty and David Pearson - have more.

More important to Gordon is the way he feels now. Like he did in his prime, when he was the one everyone was chasing, not Johnson.

“This is the best we’ve been since I can remember,” Gordon said.

Those three wins are not only more than he had the past three years combined. They’ve also given a huge boost to Gordon and his team, which knows it can run with anybody.

“This is why winning is big,” Gordon said. “It might only be worth a few more points, and it might only be one number there in the stats, but it is huge for the momentum and confidence in team building and heading into the Chase.

“You know, we had a strong season last year. But because we didn’t win, it just kind of took the wind out of our sails. We were like, ‘Gosh, we’re good, but we’re not great.’ Right now, we’re great.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of his thrilling victory at Atlanta, where he went head-to-head with the sport’s biggest star - heck, another of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history - and came out on top.

Clearly, Gordon has rediscovered that little edge he had during his first decade as a driver, the thing that separates a merely good driver from a great one. When the car is wobbling and shaking and feels like it could wreck at any moment, he won’t back off if he has a chance to win.

That wasn’t always the case after Gordon won the most recent of his four titles in 2001. As one year without a championship led to another, some wondered if he’d become a little comfortable with his very full life, if getting married a second time and having children and throwing himself into charitable pursuits was affecting his performance on the track.

It’s only natural. It happens to all the greats at some point.

But now, for whatever reason — and it’s easy to point to new crew chief Alan Gustafson - Gordon has rekindled that inner fire.

Johnson was certainly impressed by what he saw in Atlanta while riding on Gordon’s rear bumper.

“He may not have had the dominance that we’d seen before,” Johnson said, “but it’s still Jeff G ordon. And it’s so cool to race that hard with him. And even if I did come in second, it’s OK. I’d much rather have won. But we left it all out there on the track. And he got it done.”

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