By Dustin Long -

Four-year-old Ella Gordon hugs her father and kisses him as he's about to go to work. Before he walks out the door, she has something else for the man she calls "papa.'' As her baby brother, Leo, bounces in his crib and smiles, Ella tells her father to bring home a trophy.

"These kind of things just light you up,'' four-time champion Jeff Gordon says.

The driver many knew as the kid (the one with that wispy mustache he wore to look older), who made his Cup debut in Richard Petty's final race, delivered a milk toast as part of his first title celebration and defined NASCAR's youth movement, turns 40 today.

As he leaves his 30s, Gordon exits a decade in which he won his last title, divorced, remarried and fathered two children. That decade, more than any other, was a coming of age for Gordon, friends say. A time to learn and grow, a time to experience what he missed earlier in his life. A time where he learned to balance family and racing.

" changes your priorities and your goals,'' Gordon says. "Me and my wife truly are molding them into who they are going to be through our genes, but most of all I think it's through our actions and what we do and how we say it and everything else. That perspective the last 10 years has changed drastically.

"Probably the other thing that has changed in the last 10 years is the amount that I've had to put into is far greater. The driver's involvement is more important today than it used to be from a technical standpoint of information.''

All that keeps Gordon busy.

"I wake up early and when it's time to go to bed,'' he says, "I'm out because it's a full, full day.''

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