Nobody's out of Chase, yet
DOVER, Del. -- You can bury them in the standings but you can't break their spirit.
Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield, both victimized by Robby Gordon's retaliatory strike directed at Greg Biffle last week, may have fallen to the Nextel Cup standings basement but neither is ready to give up the Chase.
"It's still devastating," explained Stewart, eighth in the standings and 124 points behind co-leaders Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. "(But) this team's never given up. We came from 43rd to win a championship in 2002. We're going to do the same this year."
Mayfield is 10th in the standings but is equally optimistic and found ways to laugh at last week's misfortune. On Friday he arrived at the track wearing a T-shirt directed toward Robby Gordon that read, "You, stay very, very far away from me."
"We need to come back here and set an example and make a statement, that's what we have to do," said Mayfield, shortly after scoring the pole for Sunday's MBNA America 400. "We need to come here and do what we did at Richmond to stay in the hunt here and that's what I feel we can do. I feel like we can lead laps and definitely got a shot at winning the race."
Sandwiched between Mayfield and Stewart at the bottom of the standings is Ryan Newman, who sits ninth after an engine failure last week. Like his fellow cellar dwellers he's cast pessimism aside and remains confident his team will respond.
"You've just got to go on," explained Newman, who qualified second. "You don't want to have to cheer up your team. Your team should be able to cheer themselves up. If you spend more time babysitting than working, you're not getting the job done."
Newman has proved quite capable of getting the job done in Dover. In 2003 he won both races at the Monster Mile.
Like Newman, Stewart has also recorded the Dover sweep (2000). In fact, in 11 career Dover starts Stewart has finished outside the top-five just twice. For him, though, statistics provide little comfort and the standings provide plenty of motivation.
"It's not any big pep rallies or anything at the shop," said Stewart. "I mean, we know what we got to do, and if anything, it takes the pressure off of us because we're the underdogs now being where we are in the points."
While Stewart claims ownership of the "underdog" title he'll have to share it. Mayfield scrapped his way into the Chase by scoring a victory in the final regular season event (Richmond). It was his first win in more than four years. Now this year's Cinderella will need another clutch performance Sunday if he hopes to continue his fairy tale run.
"Everybody's got us picked dead last, so we must be the underdogs the way I look at it," says Mayfield. "Really I kind of like that because that's kind of the attitude of this team. We've been down before and brought ourselves back up. It kind of gives you that mean attitude."
Facing a sizeable deficit, Stewart believes there's only one way to approach the last nine races.
"This isn't some magic formula everybody's trying to brew up this year," asserts Stewart. "It's still driving racecars, it's still trying to win races each week and the last time I checked the guy that wins the race still gets the most amount of points."
Mayfield agrees; conservative driving is no longer an option. "We're not holding onto a lead or not holding onto third or second. We're dead last; we have nothing to lose."
The all-or-nothing approach could potentially impact the upcoming races. Still nothing will have a greater effect than the compressed point structure among the Chase contenders.
"It's like a dog being that much closer to the bone," explained Newman. "If he can reach out and grab it with his teeth, he will. I think all the teams are kind of like that. If you give them just that much more opportunity, they might take a little bit extra risk to get that."
Under the "Chase for the Nextel Cup" format critics claim that one bad race will erase a driver's championship chances. Stewart, Mayfield and Newman don't subscribe to that theory.
History backs them up. In 2002 Stewart erased a 162-point deficit in just five races. Earlier this year, Earnhardt, Jr. overcame 125-point gap in seven events and took the point lead. These three drivers understand, that conceivably 156 points can be gained in a single race. And right now, that's more than enough.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.
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