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STEWART FACING STARK REALITY.

Byline: TIM HADDOCK Motor Sports

Welcome to ``Survivor: NASCAR.''

Three NASCAR Nextel Cup Series drivers all but saw their championship dreams dashed Sunday in New Hampshire, essentially voted off the stock car island.

Tony Stewart, in his own words, seemed to take the hardest hits, to his car and his chances of winning the series championship. His comments after the race were those of dejection and defeat, hardly befitting a former champion.

``Well, it wasn't two years ago that we left Daytona 43rd and came back and won,'' said Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing. ``So it can happen again this year. But to try to make up that amount of points in nine races is virtually impossible. You can't do it with only nine races to go.''

Impossible? Making up 192 points in 10 races, the obstacle Stewart was facing before the points were reset and the Chase began, was more imposing than his current deficit. Even with a 39th-place finish, Stewart is 124 points out of first. Of course, he also dropped from fourth to eighth place with the new scoring system.

Still, he is in a better position than Ryan Newman and Jeremy Mayfield. They actually finished higher, though not by much, in the race in New Hampshire, but are further out of first than Stewart.

Did Newman describe his predicament as impossible?

``We can make it up,'' said Newman, driver of the No. 12 Dodge for Penske Racing South. ``We don't want to be in a position to have to make it up. We had to make it up from the get-go with being 10th. We'll go on. It hurts, but it doesn't kill us.''

Even Mayfield, who, like Stewart was caught up in the collision between Robby Gordon and Greg Biffle in New Hampshire, believes he is alive in the championship hunt. All four were involved in scrapes that led to Stewart and Mayfield ending their day early.

``We had our bad race (Sunday). Ryan and his team had one. I'm just ready to get out of here,'' said Mayfield, driver of the No. 19 Dodge for Evernham Motorsports. ``We didn't give up before, and we ain't going to give up now.''

Sure, Stewart, Newman and Mayfield are in a deep hole, but it is not as deep as it would have been if the old points system was in place.

There was another interesting development. Biffle and Gordon were battling even though they are not involved in the Chase.

Two of the championship contenders fell victim to two drivers who do not have as much at stake at this point of the season.

``That's been my concern all along about this and it happened to us in the first race,'' Stewart said. ``But I can promise you one thing, this team has never given up and they're not going to give up now.''

That's a little more like it. Fighting words.

Maybe Stewart is just putting on his best poker face. No driver in the Top 10 can afford to have a bad race in the final 10. But chances are no driver will make it through the last 10 races without having at least one bad race.

If a driver does make it through unscathed, he will undoubtedly win the championship, turning the Chase into a war of attrition. Stay alive, out of trouble and win the championship. Sounds vaguely similar to the way Matt Kenseth won the championship last year.

After the mess in New Hampshire, Stewart apparently is not looking forward to the next nine races.

``I don't think any of us are going to get any Mulligans,'' Stewart said. ``We're leaving here early because we've got a torn up race car that got involved in someone else's wreck. That's probably going to take us out of the championship.''

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 23, 2004
Words:649
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