Stewart holding out hope for late surge

HAMPTON - Tony Stewart isn't ready to start thinking about 2008 just yet.

Sure, he's fourth in the standings and 249 points behind leader Jeff Gordon with four races to go. But Stewart, the defending winner of the races Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway and next weekend at Texas, is far from ready to concede anything.

'Until somebody comes up and says 'OK, mathematically you are out of it,' until then, we have a shot,' Stewart said.

The two-time NASCAR Nextel Cup champion suffered through a frustrating failure to make the end-of-season Chase for the Championship last year but came back strong this season to easily make the 12-driver postseason.

After getting off to a strong start in this year's 10-race Chase, with finishes of third and ninth at New Hampshire and Dover, Stewart hit the skids with a crash that relegated him to 39th at Kansas.

That dug him a big hole that he has yet to climb out of, despite following with solid, if unspectacular, finishes of eighth at Talladega, seventh at Charlotte and 13th last week at Martinsville.

Going into Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500, Stewart trails only four-time Cup champion Gordon, reigning champion Jimmie Johnson and second-year Cup star Clint Bowyer, the surprise of this year's Chase. But the deficit is certainly imposing with the races quickly running out.

Perhaps the only good thing about Stewart's situation is that he can now throw caution and strategy to the wind - just as he did last year when he wasn't part of the championship battle.

'When it happened, we were obviously devastated,' Stewart said of missing the Chase in 2006. 'But it's just part of the sport, because it shows how competitive this series is.

'When we didn't get in, it wasn't the end of the world. We just switched our focus. We didn't have the goal of trying to win a championship anymore. Our goal was go out and try to win races, and that's exactly what we did. ... We ended up winning five races last year. Chase or no Chase, we had a lot to be proud of.'

Overall, he has had a better year in 2007. But Stewart, who has three wins so far this season, understands how tough his situation is.

'Even if we win the race for the last four weeks in a row, there is still no guarantee that we could close the gap,' Stewart said. 'All we can do is worry about ourselves right now. It really takes the pressure off of us. All we can do is go for broke now.

'Anything can happen to any of the teams. ... There is no blueprint that says, 'This is how you win or don't win a championship.' So, as long as mathematically you still have a chance, you're in it.'

Looking at the math, there is still a maximum of 780 points available, with the possibility of gaining up to 161 on the leader in each event.

Johnson is just 53 points behind Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, and Bowyer is 115 out of first. Gordon, whose worst finish in the first six races of this year's Chase is 11th, isn't taking anything for granted.

'A lot can still happen in the remaining four races. A lot can happen in one race,' Gordon said. 'In the few years since the Chase began, it seems like the champion has had at least one bad finish during the 10-race stretch. But that may not happen this year. Jimmie has been strong and I don't see that team letting up, and Clint has been consistent.

'A lot of people are counting Tony out, but that team is capable of going on a tear. Until someone is mathematically eliminated, I'm considering them a threat to win the championship.'

Johnson, who charged back from a bad start in the Chase last year, coming from ninth place and 165 points behind after the second race to take the series lead with three races to go, is also not counting Stewart out.

'Strange things happen in sports, and it's still possible for (Stewart) to get back into the fight,' Johnson said. 'We just have to do our job, and that will help us and make the jobs of those other guys, including Tony, that much tougher.'

SideBar: Pep Boys Auto 500 Lineup

Friday's qualifying; race Sunday

At Atlanta Motor Speedway

Hampton, Georgia

Race distance: 500.5 miles, 325 laps

(Car number in parentheses)

1. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 192.453 mph.

2. (2) Kurt Busch, Dodge, 192.426.

3. (44) Dale Jarrett, Toyota, 191.655.

4. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 191.595.

5. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 191.489.

6. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 191.199.

7. (40) David Stremme, Dodge, 190.975.

8. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 190.719.

9. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 190.719.

10. (19) Elliott Sadler, Dodge, 190.706.

11. (43) Bobby Labonte, Dodge, 190.548.

12. (01) Mark Martin, Chevrolet, 190.509.

13. (38) David Gilliland, Ford, 190.365.

14. (83) Brian Vickers, Toyota, 190.247.

15. (25) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 190.058.

16. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford, 189.818.

17. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 189.818.

18. (11) Denny Hamlin, Chevrolet, 189.779.

19. (5) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 189.759.

20. (1) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 189.740.

21. (42) Juan Pablo Montoya, Dodge, 189.694.

22. (18) J.J. Yeley, Chevrolet, 189.681.

23. (78) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 189.642.

24. (55) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 189.610.

25. (26) Jamie McMurray, Ford, 189.532.

26. (07) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 189.428.

27. (10) Scott Riggs, Dodge, 189.409.

28. (31) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, 189.370.

29. (49) John Andretti, Dodge, 189.273.

30. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 189.209.

31. (84) AJ Allmendinger, Toyota, 189.092.

32. (41) Reed Sorenson, Dodge, 188.796.

33. (7) Robby Gordon, Ford, 188.482.

34. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 188.079.

35. (70) Johnny Sauter, Chevrolet, 188.034.

36. (15) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 187.786.

37. (6) David Ragan, Ford, Owner Points

38. (88) Ricky Rudd, Ford, Owner Points

39. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge, Owner Points

40. (96) Tony Raines, Chevrolet, Owner Points

41. (66) Jeremy Mayfield, Chevrolet, Owner Points

42. (22) Dave Blaney, Toyota, Owner Points

43. (21) Bill Elliott, Ford, Past Champion

Failed to qualify

44. (00) David Reutimann, Toyota, 188.758.

45. (08) Burney Lamar, Dodge, 188.738.

46. (06) Sam Hornish Jr., Dodge, 188.655.

47. (4) Ward Burton, Chevrolet, 187.697.

48. (36) Mike Skinner, Toyota, 187.665.