Gordon brings back the mustache before upcoming race

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Gordon brings back the mustache before upcoming race

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.

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

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USA TODAY

Michigan's magical March ends in one-point loss to Oregon in Sweet Sixteen

Michigan's March magic finally ran out.

The guy who's been so fantastic throughout his senior season, point guard Derrick Walton Jr., missed a game-winning 3-point try at the buzzer, and the Wolverines fell to the Oregon Ducks by a 69-68 final score in the Sweet Sixteen.

It was an incredibly competitive game between the Big Ten Tournament champs and the Pac-12 regular-season champs, with neither side ever leading by more than six.

But Moe Wagner, who scored a career-high 26 points in Michigan's second-round win over Louisville, was pretty much a non-factor in this one, scoring just seven points on 3-for-10 shooting.

Still, seniors Walton and Zak Irvin kept an unusually cold-shooting group of Wolverines alive with a combined 39 points, 23 of which came after halftime. D.J. Wilson also scored in double figures with 12, all coming on 3-pointers.

But Michigan, which had been on fire offensively for much of the last month, shot just 43.1 percent from the field and missed 20 of its 31 shots from behind the arc.

The Wolverines actually shot under 40 percent over the opening 20 minutes as the two defenses did good work for these typically high-scoring squads. Michigan turned the ball over seven times before the break but trailed by just two as it went to the locker room.

The tit-for-tat nature of the game continued at the outset of the second half before Oregon reached its game-high six-point lead, but Michigan responded with seven straight and grabbed its first lead of the second half around the 11-minute mark. The Ducks answered that mini surge with six straight of their own, part of a larger 10-4 spurt, before Wilson and Walton hit back-to-back triples to once again give the Wolverines a narrow advantage, this time with a little more than four minutes remaining.

Oregon and Irvin traded buckets from there, and a Walton jumper was Michigan's sixth straight make from the field, putting the Wolverines up three with under two minutes to play. But Michigan didn't score again, and Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey got back-to-back layups, the latter the game-winning one ahead of Walton's missed 3-point attempt as time ran out.

Dorsey was fantastic for the Ducks, scoring 20 points, his sixth straight game with at least 20 points. Bell had a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Oregon advanced to its second straight Elite Eight with the win.

Michigan's entertaining end-of-season run is over. Entering Thursday night's game in Kansas City, the Wolverines had won seven straight and 10 of their last 12. Those two losses came by a combined seven points. Add this loss in and just eight points separated Michigan from 13 consecutive wins.

Certainly this group of Wolverines will be remembered for its sensational four wins in four days at the Big Ten Tournament after that horrifying aborted takeoff, as well as for reaching the third Sweet Sixteen in the last five seasons under John Beilein.

Cubs president Theo Epstein, world's greatest leader? 'The pope didn't have as good of a year'

Cubs president Theo Epstein, world's greatest leader? 'The pope didn't have as good of a year'

MESA, Ariz. – Cubs president Theo Epstein showed zero interest in playing along with Fortune magazine putting him on the cover and ranking him No. 1 on the list of "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders," or two spots ahead of Pope Francis.

"The pope didn't have as good of a year," manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday, channeling Babe Ruth.

Epstein essentially bit his tongue, responding to reporters with a copy-and-paste text message that reflected his self-awareness and PR savvy. 

"Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house," Epstein wrote. "The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It's baseball – a pastime involving a lot of chance. If (Ben) Zobrist's ball is three inches farther off the line, I'm on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan. 

"And I'm not even the best leader in our organization; our players are."

Epstein obviously has a big ego. No one becomes the youngest general manager in baseball history and builds three World Series winners without a strong sense of confidence and conviction. But he genuinely tries to deflect credit, keep a relatively low profile and stay focused on the big picture. 

Fortune's cover art became an older image of Epstein standing at the dugout, surrounded by reporters during a Wrigley Field press gaggle. (This was not Alex Rodriguez kissing a mirror during a magazine photo shoot.) The text borrowed from Tom Verducci's upcoming "The Cubs Way" book. 
 
Fortune still hit an Internet sweet spot and generated a lot of buzz, ranking Epstein ahead of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (No. 4), Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (No. 7) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (No. 10).

"I'm all about the pope," Maddon said. "Sorry, Pope Francis. We're buds. I'd like to meet him someday. But after all, what we did last year was pretty special. 

"Has the pope broken any 108-year-old curses lately?"

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Epstein also ended an 86-year drought for the Boston Red Sox, putting the finishing touches on the immortal 2004 team and winning another championship in 2007 with eight homegrown players. 

No matter how the Cubs try to airbrush history now, that five-year plan featured lucky breaks, unexpected twists and turns and payroll frustrations as the franchise went from 101 losses in 2012 to 103 wins last season. But even after the biggest party Chicago has ever seen, no team in baseball is better positioned for the future. And there is no doubt that Epstein is a Hall of Fame executive.  

"He's very good at setting something up and then permitting people to do their jobs," Maddon said. "That's the essence of good leadership, the ability to delegate well. But then he also has the tough conversations. 

"He sees both sides. I've talked about his empathy before. I think that sets him apart from a lot of the young groups that are leading Major League Baseball teams right now. You know if you have to talk to him about something, he's got an open ear and he's going to listen to what you say. He's not going to go in there predetermined. 

"You can keep going on and on, him just obviously being very bright, brilliant actually. He's got so many great qualities about him. But he leads well, I think, primarily because of his empathy."

That blend of scouting and analytics, open-minded nature and pure guts led to the Cubs: drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber; trading for Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Addison Russell and almost their entire bullpen; and signing transformative free agents like Jon Lester and Zobrist.            

Chairman Tom Ricketts locked up Epstein before the playoffs started last October with a five-year extension believed to be worth in the neighborhood of $50 million. Arrieta didn't laugh off the Fortune rankings.

"It just shows you all the positive that's he done," Arrieta said. "Not only here, but beforehand in Boston and what he's built for himself and for the city of Boston and the city of Chicago. It's hard to understate what he means to the organization."