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NASCAR leader Stewart doesn’t mind losing cushion for Chase

Melissa Murphy Associated Press

NEW YORK – A smiling Tony Stewart greeted fans at a Times Square sports bar, truly relaxing for probably the last time this season.

Stewart and defending NASCAR Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch were among 10 drivers making a pit stop Thursday to promote The Chase for the Championship, which begins Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway.

The Chase is NASCAR’s postseason playoff, in which the top 10 drivers in the standings after the first 26 races compete over the final 10 events for the Nextel Cup title. The Chase runs through Nov. 20, with the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Points leader Stewart likes the new format, in its second year, even though he’s only 45 points ahead of 10th-place driver Ryan Newman. Before the points were reset at intervals of five, Stewart was 185 ahead of second-place Greg Biffle and had 661 more than Newman.

“It’s been positive for the sport,” Stewart said. “If you look at the last week and two weeks previous, how much was built up around ‘Who’s going to make it?’ ”

Stewart has reason to be happy heading into the Chase. He had a two-month stretch of five wins, including an emotional victory at Indianapolis last month. A native of Columbus, Ind., Stewart spent nine frustrating years trying to win at the Brickyard.

That milestone helped overshadow much bad behavior, and he’s on probation for the rest of the year. It was a mellow Stewart who did rounds of interviews and a live video feed from the sports bar where drivers held a Q & A with fans.

“I like him; he’s got a good Pittsburgh attitude,” said Bob Koester, a sales manager visiting for the weekend.

Stewart’s biggest competition might be Busch, coming off a victory last weekend in Richmond. Busch starts the Chase in the fifth spot, 20 points behind Stewart, and has four Roush Racing teammates in the field.

“It’s great to be able to finish off the regular season on a strong note and jump into the Chase race with a very similar track in New Hampshire,” Busch said.

He’ll head to the tight, flat oval in Loudon, N.H., knowing he’s won there before. Busch took the first Chase event there last year and in July finished second to Stewart at The Magic Mile.

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