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'What If ...' game haunts drivers as Chase hunt approaches stretch run

It's the sports game that'll drive you crazy, costing athletes and fans years of their life wondering what might have been. Only small subsets get to realize their goals each week, while for the rest their would-be achievements remain caught up in a world where all they can do is pretend.

What if ...

After a NASCAR day filled with unexpected Hollywood drama out in Fontana, that's exactly what half the field is thinking as they fly back east saddled with floundering expectations. Between Chase pretenders exposed by blown engines, faulty debris destroying dreams and a handful of costly penalties for the race's top contenders, there's plenty of second-guessing for some ugly team meetings behind closed doors this week. So let's pose the possibilities several superstars can't escape, a five-pack of questions that, like Fontana's autumn date, are now just a figment of their imagination:

1. What if Tony Stewart didn't run out of fuel at New Hampshire? In the midst of the zoo known as Victory Lane, the elephant in the room had trouble fitting alongside Stewart's suddenly endless optimism. Minutes after capturing the checkers at a track where he'd never won, leading 27 of the final 51 laps after charging forward from 22nd starting spot, the driver/owner was focused on his short-term future -- not licking his wounds on a start to the Chase he'd like to forget.

"We're doing everything we can do," he said of still-faint championship chances, closing to within 107 of the lead after his first win in the postseason since Kansas last October. "We're going to need some help, but we're doing everything we can do. I'm proud of these guys, and just so thankful."

It's a far cry from the old Smoke, who would still be focused on an awful mistake a month (or more) after it happened. But no amount of smiley faces will make a poor gamble on fuel stand out any less, running out on the last lap while leading at Loudon the difference in this owner/driver's Chase place. Limping to the line in 25th, a full tank would have landed him in Victory Lane, leaving him second in points, just 13 behind Jimmie Johnson with Stewart-friendly tracks like Martinsville, Talladega and Texas dead ahead.

Instead, a day where the two-time champ hit on one of just three tracks he'd gone winless in Cup -- Darlington and Vegas remain on the "0-fer" list -- the post-race talk centered around that missed opportunity. For while this team has been fantastic the last two weeks, cutting 55 points off their deficit at intermediates, the consistency of a trio of drivers in front of them makes it unlikely they'll emerge as a title contender down the stretch.

"You're always going to think about what could have been, but we've got to go into every week planning to get maximum points," said Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb. "Lead every lap and win the race, and after that we'll just see what else happens. If we do our job and execute, that's all we can ask for."

It's just asking for a title might still be asking too much.

2. What if Roush Fenway's FR9 engines had lasted all 400 miles? It's a question that remains unanswered just hours after Ford's title chances went up in smoke. All we know for now is it's a shocking turn of events for Roush Fenway, a team who entered the day filled with momentum and the sport's most recent winner (Greg Biffle). But by the end of it, Biffle joined a quartet of disappointed drivers destroyed by days of 30th or worse, the three Chase contenders on that list hampered by the type of self-inflicted wounds you just don't see from this group. How rare? In 116 combined starts this season, RFR had just one DNF for mechanical issues.

On Sunday, they nearly had three -- Biffle's early trip to the garage combined with Matt Kenseth limping home on seven cylinders and Carl Edwards 13 laps down. At one point, the latter's No. 99 AFLAC car stopped on-track to cause a caution, pushed behind the wall on a wrecker only to see his title chances diagnosed beyond repair.

"They've been working really hard to give us more power to be competitive, and there are always growing pains with that every once in a while getting that figured out," said Kenseth, offering his best explanation. "Doug Yates and all those guys at the engine shop do a great job, and I'm sure we'll figure out what the problem is when the truck gets back in a couple of days."

By then, they'll be working on plans for 2011, as there's not much they can do about this year. With Edwards 162 back, Biffle down by 215 and Kenseth a gargantuan 241 points behind, even surviving the Russian Roulette known as Talladega won't be enough to give them a chance.

3. What if that caution for debris hadn't come out with 18 laps to go? "That's a good question," was Clint Bowyer's response to this one, knowing full well he'd have won the race if not for NASCAR's "discovery" of debris on the back straightaway. It was one of three such cautions for a track with a questionable history of close competition, leading conspiracy theorists chirping on whether the sport was artificially trying to enhance an ending for a track that's suffered from a sharp attendance and ratings decline. Add in Bowyer's contentious recent history with NASCAR -- his car and crew chief were serving the first of four-week suspensions following a 150-point penalty at Loudon, crippling his title hopes -- and that leads to a whole lot of questioning in the Richard Childress Racing camp once their healthy lead in the race was wiped away.

"I saw it for a long time," he said of the "debris," implying NASCAR picked and chose the time to throw a yellow that led to a whole lot of R-Rated expletives on his radio. The team knew a final round of pit stops would cost them the track position they needed -- after restarting third and watching the No. 14 blow past them, it was small consolation they were proven right. "Hell, it's part of it. What do you say? You know, I got one from Tony Stewart [at Loudon] when he ran out of gas, and I felt like we had that race won until the caution came out, and he got one."

"I'm happy for him, I am. And he was happy for me when I beat him, and we'll go on."

What else can Bowyer say, really? At this point, he's along for the ride, his postseason forever defined by ugly circumstances far outside his control.

4. What if Jimmie Johnson wasn't leading the championship Chase? Without the imposing presence of the No. 48, Jeff Gordon, Stewart and even Kurt Busch could say they're in contention for this year's title. Instead, it's just a three-man race after the reigning four-time champ left Fontana with only Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick within 54 points of the lead.

On a day where Johnson was expected to dominate, a third-place finish at a track he's won three times the last five visits was a bit of a head-scratcher. It's also plenty good enough, though, the highest-finishing title contender on a day where everyone else flopped worse than MacGruber at the box office. Kyle Busch joined the Ford boys with a blown engine on Lap 156, causing a caution that led to Gordon speeding down pit road. While he worked feverishly just to earn a ninth-place finish, Kurt Busch was furious after a wreck with David Ragan knocked him back to 21st. For the second straight week, Jeff Burton looked like an also-ran in 23rd, a runner-up finish in Dover the only pleasant memory from a forgettable postseason.

That left just Harvick and Hamlin keeping pace with the No. 48, both of whom overcame serious adversity just to stay within striking distance. For Harvick, it was a speeding penalty that left him charging through the field not once, but twice after starting 21st. But his seventh-place performance paled in comparison to Hamlin fighting for eighth, the No. 11 car filled with handling gremlins yet still able to push forward after the starting the race dead last following a transmission change.

That leaves the points a far cry from last week, when eight drivers were within 85 of the top spot. Instead, after an ugly day of Chasers falling by the wayside, this trio on top is filled with so much momentum right now it's now hard to see anyone else breaking through.

5. What if Robby Gordon can't get a sponsor for 2011? An underreported story surrounds a different type of NASCAR race down the stretch: A battle for the 35th and final "locked in" spot in owner points. Whoever has it after Homestead earns an automatic bid to the first five events in 2011, perhaps making the difference between finding a sponsor in this economy and auctioning off a team this November.

Right now, owner/driver Gordon is holding onto the position but just barely after stepping back and letting a funded driver, rookie Kevin Conway, take over to keep his team in business. It's an off-track boost to the bank account, albeit one that's come with a long-term price. The freshman has run awful, failing to record a top-30 finish while the team's main competition, the No. 38 of Front Row Motorsports, has closed to within 25 points with six races left.

That could leave Gordon on the outside looking in next year, a fatal blow to one of the sport's vibrant, independent personalities who's been a staple on the Cup Series tour for well more than a decade. Instead, his best opportunities could now come in the open-wheel ranks, a telling sign of an underground momentum shift that's seeing ownership and driving jobs shift back into IndyCar. Race Grade: B.

On a track that offers a wide variety of racing grooves, the restarts Sunday were packed with four, sometimes five-wide competition that served as some of the best intermediate racing we've seen this year. A surprise winner and five drivers who led 20 laps or more simply added to the intrigue of a race that's typically a yawner. I have to admit, though, any race with three debris cautions nowadays is bothersome for a sport accused too often of manipulating the outcome.

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