It didn't take long for Lady Luck to play a role in NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race championship playoff.
Just 64 laps into Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, the first race in the title showdown, Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield found themselves in trouble.
Robby Gordon, apparently retaliating for being spun out earlier by Greg Biffle, ignited a multicar crash that hurt the chances of the two championship contenders. Gordon drew a two-lap penalty from NASCAR after hitting Biffle's car in the back, but Stewart and Mayfield paid the biggest penalty when they got caught up in the crash.
Both spent time in the garage for repairs and made it back on the track, but Stewart retired after running 83 of the 300 laps and Mayfield came back 48 laps behind the leaders. Stewart wound up 39th and Mayfield 36th; they're eighth and 10th, respectively, in points heading into Sunday's race at Dover.
"That's probably going to take us out of the championship," Stewart said. "Two years ago, we left Daytona 43rd and came back and won (the series title), so it can happen again this year. But to try to make up that amount of points in nine more races is virtually impossible.
"I can promise you one thing, though. This team has never given up and they're not going to give up now."
Stewart didn't say anything about Gordon, but noted, "I think if you watch the tape, it's pretty self-explanatory. You know it can happen. It's just part of racing. We're leaving here early because we got a tore-up race car that we got involved in somebody else's wreck."
Mayfield, whose victory in Richmond, Va., Sept. 11 got him into the top 10, said, "We had our bad race today. Ryan (Newman) and his team had one, too. We didn't give up before and we ain't going to give up now.
"Robby will have his day. I'm just an innocent bystander here and I'm just voicing my mind. I just think Robby and Biffle ought to go outside the racetrack and fight and get it over with."
Gordon finished seven laps down in 32nd. When approached by several writers after the race, Gordon said nothing, made an obscene gesture and drove away in a golf cart.
Newman, who started the day 10th in points after barely making it into the playoff, is ninth; engine failure knocked him out after 262 laps and left him in 33rd place. He ran in the top 10 most of the day.
"I guess the bottom line is, don't cry," Newman said. "We'll figure out what happened and go on. I don't think we've been eliminated yet."
Matt Kenseth, last year's series champion and the runnerup to Roush Racing teammate Kurt Busch on Sunday, agreed.
"With 10 races, that's a long time to recover," Kenseth said. "Everybody is going to have an off-day. You're not going to be able to run in the top five every single week.
"I think they'll be able to recover."
SLOW START: It wasn't the start to the title battle that four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson envisioned.
They started the day 1-2 in points after being at or near the front of the standings all season. After Gordon finished seventh and Johnson 11th, they found themselves third and fifth, respectively.
"We started out great, but it just went away," said Gordon, who led twice for 21 laps early. "We could never really get a handle on it."
A late caution flag allowed Gordon to pit for fresh tires and some adjustments and saved the day after he began to fade back into the field.
"I'm happy with that," Gordon said. "But I'm not happy with getting beat as bad as we did."
Johnson had similar handling problems.
"We were just really too loose there at the end," he said. "I don't really understand why. I definitely wish we would have been a few spots higher."
FAN FAVORITE: Many are rooting for four-time series runnerup Mark Martin to win the title, but the veteran got off to a so-so start with a 13th-place finish.
The usually pessimistic Martin said it could have been worse on a track where he hadn't finished better than 14th in his past five starts.
"That's one bullet we dodged," Martin said. "We got through it and we'll have better stuff going forward.
"That's a good way to start off."
SPARK PLUGS: Johnson swept both New Hampshire races in 2003 but finished 11th in both this year. Jeff Gordon has a series-leading 19 top 10s this season. Jamie McMurray held on to 11th in the standings, eight points ahead of rookie Kasey Kahne.
_ ASSOCIATED PRESS
AT LOUDON, N.H.
Pos., st., driver, make, laps, earnings.
1. (7) Kurt Busch, Ford, 300, $237,225.
2. (5) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 300, $175,108.
3. (3) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy, 300, $155,158.
4. (12) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 300, $131,700.
5. (11) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 300, $92,400.
6. (25) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, 300, $105,725.
7. (1) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 300, $116,478.
8. (6) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 300, $107,333.
9. (16) Michael Waltrip, Chevy, 300, $103,956.
10. (14) Kevin Harvick, Chevy, 300, $109,778.
11. (2) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 300, $86,800.
12. (19) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 300, $103,200.
13. (8) Mark Martin, Ford, 300, $78,425.
14. (17) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 300, $108,533.
15. (26) Jeff Burton, Chevy, 300, $77,275.
16. (33) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 300, $67,875.
17. (35) Ricky Craven, Chevy, 299, $89,650.
18. (13) Bobby Labonte, Chevy, 299, $107,333.
19. (31) Jeff Green, Dodge, 299, $92,000.
20. (21) Carl Edwards, Ford, 299, $100,817.
21. (34) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 299, $78,125.
22. (24) Brian Vickers, Chevy, 298, $72,800.
23. (36) Todd Bodine, Dodge, 298, $65,425.
24. (23) Terry Labonte, Chevy, 298, $90,950.
25. (29) Ward Burton, Chevy, 298, $64,285.
26. (30) Scott Riggs, Chevy, 298, $88,762.
27. (15) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 297, $94,267.
28. (20) Greg Biffle, Ford, 297, $70,675.
29. (18) Casey Mears, Dodge, 296, $70,390.
30. (32) Brendan Gaughan, Dodge, 296, $67,650.
31. (42) Hermie Sadler, Chevy, 295, $59,950.
32. (22) Robby Gordon, Chevy, 293, $94,417.
33. (10) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 262, engine, $105,902.
34. (41) Mike Wallace, Dodge, 256, accident, $59,725.
35. (9) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 251, $74,989.
36. (27) Scott Wimmer, Dodge, 207, accident, $66,410.
37. (28) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 192, overheating, $84,306.
38. (38) Jimmy Spencer, Chevy, 121, susp., $58,100.
39. (4) Tony Stewart, Chevy, 83, accident, $104,813.
40. (40) Morgan Shepherd, Dodge, 81, too slow, $57,950.
41. (39) Geoffrey Bodine, Ford, 50, ignition, $57,850.
42. (37) Kirk Shelmerdine, Ford, 30, too slow, $57,800.
43. (43) Ted Christopher, Ford, 17, engine, $57,959.
Through 27 of 36 races. The top 10 are in the "Chase for the Championship" and are the only drivers eligible to win the title.
Driver Car Pts Back
Earnhardt Jr. Chevy 5,210 _
Kurt Busch Ford 5,210 _
J. Gordon Chevy 5,201 9
Kenseth Ford 5,200 10
Johnson Chevy 5,180 30
Sadler Ford 5,172 38
Martin Ford 5,139 71
Stewart Chevy 5,086 124
Newman Dodge 5,074 136
Mayfield Dodge 5,068 142
_ Standings are unofficial. NASCAR releases official standings today.
THE OLD WAY
Had the old points system been in place (the one where the top 10 did not have points adjusted after the Sept. 11 race at Richmond), Jeff Gordon would have kept his points lead, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving into second, 42 points behind. Co-leader Kurt Busch would be fifth, and Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne would be in the top 10, replacing Ryan Newman (12th) and Jeremy Mayfield (13th).