JOLIET – We've heard about winning one for the Gipper or for a sick kid, but when was the last time you heard an athlete go out and "win for the 'stache?"
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, with nearly a week's growth above his lip, came into this weekend's action at Chicagoland Speedway hoping to find a motivational tool for he, his team and his fans to latch on to kick off the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Gordon hasn't worn a mustache since 1993, but given how often fans have asked him "when are you going to grow your mustache back again?" over the years, he decided a couple of weeks ago that if he made the Chase, he may just bring back the whiskers for a return engagement.
Especially if it could serve as motivational fodder.
But even Gordon is a bit surprised at the resulting comments and interest his new growth has fostered, including it's own Twitter account (@GordonsMustache). While he's taking things with a grain of salt and enjoying the attention his facial hair is causing, it very well may prove to be an inspiration towards winning that long-sought fifth Cup championship this season.
Gordon almost didn't make the Chase this season. It appeared Kyle Busch would earn the 12th and final qualifying position at Richmond last week, but Gordon drove like he hasn't in years – perhaps as hard as when he last had a caterpillar atop his lip. In the end, Busch fell short and Gordon raced his way into his eighth Chase appearance (the Chase enters its ninth year starting tomorrow).
And if the stubble he sported heading into Richmond gave him an assist to make the Chase, why not ride it through for the 10 races in NASCAR's playoff, right?
"I've had fans, other competitors just saying you need to bring back that mustache, the mullet, the whole thing, the rainbow colored paint scheme, the whole thing. I always laughed about it. Then we were having a conversation about a month ago about making the Chase and I said if we make it, I'll bring back my mustache.
"It's just kind of taken a life of it's own. It's coming, slow, but it's coming."
Gordon has not won a Cup championship since 2001, but the combination of the mustache and his overall record at Chicagoland Speedway – 11 starts, one win, six top-5 and seven top-10 finishes – could ultimately wind up spelling a fifth career Cup title by season's end.
But one thing is missing, according to fellow competitor and reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart.
"(Gordon's) got to grow back the eyebrows, too," Stewart joked. "It was kind of a matching set."
While Gordon is adding hair, crew chief Alan Gustafson is also getting into the spirit of things, having shaved his head earlier this week after promising to do so if Gordon made the Chase.
While the now-bald Gustafson and the stubble-filled Gordon are making quite an unusual pairing, their dual actions have certainly motivated the No. 24 team as it gets ready for Sunday's kickoff to the Chase.
"I made the statement and am a person of my word," Gordon said. "And Alan said he'd shave his head, so we did. We're committed."
They're also committed to getting off to a strong start in the Chase. Or you can look at it as if they're picking up where they left off prior to the start of the chase, with a win at Pocono six weeks ago and then finishes of third and a pair of runner-up showings in his last three races, including the second-place finish that ultimately got Gordon into the Chase – and mathematically kicked Kyle Busch out.
"If we finish where we're running and where our performance level is at, then we're going to be a major threat in this thing," Gordon said. "And we've done that in the last three weeks."
Gordon comes into Sunday's race in a four-way tie for ninth place in the 12-driver Chase. He'll start from the 19th position, not exactly where he'd like to, but given he'll get 267 laps around the 1.5-mile race track, Gordon is poised to make a run to the front in much the same fashion he did in earning his runner-up showing at Richmond last weekend.
"The whole team is extremely fired up and excited about the way things have been going, and to be able to pull (Richmond) off gives us a huge boost," Gordon said. "We're ready to go get after it here in Chicago this weekend. We feel like we've got a good gameplan, a great race car – and the 'stache is back, so I think we're in great shape."
There's one other motivating factor that could play into Gordon's championship run: had it not been for reaching back into his bag of tricks and looking like the Jeff Gordon of old who won championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001 last weekend at Richmond, he would not be where he is coming into Sunday's race.
In other words, Gordon has to keep things going and not make the same mistakes or hopefully have better luck than he did in some less-than-fortunate instances in races earlier this season. Rather than having to sneak into the Chase by the skin of his teeth, he much rather would have made it with room to spare.
Still, that was not to be the case, but all that can help him and the No. 24 team find even more spirit deep inside themselves to go from Chase dark horse to champion 10 weeks from now.
"I'm the biggest believer in you make your own luck by being the best team out there. And I don't feel like we've been the best team out there so far this season."
So now you can see why Gordon is putting his face – and mustache – front and center. If the mustache can serve as a motivating tool, as well as a foil to deflect some of the bad things that happened to him and his team earlier this season, he may very well surprise everyone in 2012 in much the same fashion as Tony Stewart did by winning five races in last year's Chase en route to his third career Cup championship.
"What I love about the Chase is that it's all about timing," Gordon said. "If you pull together and you improve those things in areas that you're weak in at the right time and make your way into it – and Tony (Stewart) proved that last year that anything is possible, and especially after Saturday night's performance (at Richmond), we definitely feel like this season has just now been rejuvenated for us, we're on a clean slate and we've got an excellent opportunity to do something pretty spectacular that we might not have expected with this season and the way it could possibly turn out."
While the mustache is a nice gimmick and motivating tool, it's not going to win Gordon any races. After his win at Pocono six weeks ago, giving a resurgence to his Chase hopes, Gordon and his team knew that the only way they'd make the Chase would be to adopt a win-or-go-home mindset. Given the performance in the last three races, it's working.
Now it's a matter of continuing that on for 10 more races.
"That's what got us into this thing and that's what's going to keep us in it and get us the championship," Gordon said. "If anything, I think what these last three weeks and really this season has proven to us is that you have to aggressively pursue wins and obviously accumulate the most points. That's what wins this championship.
"We're going out there with nothing to lose and everything to gain, just the same way that we've approached these last races in the last several weeks. We didn't expect to be here. The pressure is on us right now.
"Everything changes here, this weekend. Everybody ramps up, everybody brings out their best. And we're going to find out if our best is capable of winning the championship."
NOTES: Not only did Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won Saturday's Dollar General 300 in the Nationwide Series, he finally unseated previous points leader Elliott Sadler from the top spot in the standings. Sadler had lead the Nationwide Series points for the last 20 weeks, but Stenhouse now leads Sadler by nine points. … Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew reportedly had to change the motor in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, which means Junior will likely start Sunday's Geico 400 Sprint Cup race from the back of the 43-car field.