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NASCAR: Jeff Gordon enjoying unexpected run in Chase

TALLADEGA, Ala. — With flecks of gray in his sideburns, it’s apparent that Jeff Gordon is long removed from those days as a hotshot young driver who seemed destined to win more NASCAR Cup championships than anyone.

Heck, not too long ago people were wondering if he was all washed up. Well, look who’s in contention for a Sprint Cup championship.

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Yep, the guy they used to call Wonder Boy.

‘‘I just like the fact that you’re talking about that,’’ Gordon said Friday, chatting with a reporter outside his hauler. ‘‘That means things are happening for us. It’s been so long. I don’t know what it feels like anymore to win a championship.’’

It’s been 12 long years, to be exact, since Gordon captured the last of his four titles.

But he heads into Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway ranking fourth in the points and hoping to take advantage of a track where the standings can change in a hurry.

‘‘I don’t even know if I have the words to describe how much it would mean,’’ Gordon said. ‘‘The longer you’re in the sport, the more ups and downs you go through, the more meaningful the wins and the championships. Certainly nothing would top that.’’

He knows he’s still a long shot, with Matt Kenseth and teammate Jimmie Johnson holding down the top two spots. Gordon trails Kenseth by 36 points and Johnson by 32 — a lot of ground to make up. The odds that both will suddenly go into a slump is a stretch, to say the least, and Kevin Harvick also stands between Gordon and the top spot.

But at Talladega, where restrictor plates lead to tight racing and big crashes, there’s always a chance to make a big move — up or down. No matter how the season turns out, Gordon has gotten another taste of what it’s like to be in the mix. He likes the feeling.

‘‘Earlier in the year, people wrote me off and said, ‘When are you going to retire?’ ’’ Gordon said, with plenty of satisfaction in his voice. ‘‘Now everybody is like, ‘Wow, look at this guy. Where did he come from? That’s fun. That’s what I like to do.’’

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