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LOUDON, N.H. -- Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have a difficult task ahead of them. Not an impossible one, but an improbable one.
The two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers must find a way to climb back into contention in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the 10-race playoff run that is now only nine weeks from completion.
Those clouds of smoke trailing Logano a week ago at Chicagoland Speedway were warning signs that the engine in his car wasn't planning to stick around for the checkered flag. It didn't.
Logano, 23 and making his first appearance in the Chase, won the Coors Light Pole and led laps but none of that mattered when he pulled his No. 22 Penske Racing Ford behind the wall after just 175 of 267 laps.
Previously sixth in points, he finished 37th, and fell to 12th in the 13-car Chase field. The gap between himself and points leader Matt Kenseth is a gulf greater than a full race -- 52 points.
The engine in Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 Chevrolet lasted a little longer, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver eventually coasted into the garage with a 35th-place finish. His reward for the unexpected start? He's holding down the rear of the Chase field, 53 points out of the lead.
"It's unfortunate when something like that happens because we had a really fast race car last week, one that I felt like could have won the race, and instead we came home with a 30-something-place finish and that part is just really hard, but it happens," Logano said following his qualifying run Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "That's what our sport is -- you have to rely on a lot of things and sometimes you have a mechanical issue like that and the guy who wins the championship usually doesn't have that, but that's not to say we can't come back.
"This team is strong. We've been digging out of a hole all year, and every time we get our head just above water, we get pulled back under again and we keep fighting to get back up. We'll be fine. I'm not worried about it."
Logano will start sixth in Sunday's Sylvania 300. The first of his three career Cup wins came here in 2009. On Saturday, he was 13th and eighth, respectively, in the day's two practice sessions.
Earnhardt Jr. will line up a bit deeper after putting his car 17th on the 43-car grid. What happened the previous week seemed to be of little concern -- Earnhardt Jr. was more focused Friday on getting his car to turn better on the 1.058-mile track before Sunday's race.
"We haven't talked about (last week) much," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We're just trying to qualify here and get through the day.
"We'll practice our car (Saturday) and see if we can make a good car out of it. That's all we've been thinking about. Just worried about my car today ? worried about trying to win this race this weekend."
Perhaps the focus on what's ahead and ignoring what's behind will pay off. Earnhardt Jr. was second fastest in Saturday's opening practice and fastest overall in the final shakedown.
Time and opportunities are limited. Success stories are few for those who have found themselves falling behind early in previous Chases. Jimmie Johnson finished 39th in the first Chase race in 2006 at New Hampshire but came back to win his first of five titles.
"You can't give up hope," Johnson said.
"Last year I had two bad races -- really one in Phoenix where we crashed -- and still had a chance going into Homestead. So I think there's still a chance for them. Unfortunately they're losing control, and that's what no one wants to have happen."
Johnson had an outside chance a year ago, but the timing of his Phoenix troubles left him punching at air, hoping to land a haymaker in the final round at Homestead.
It never landed.
"It is, I think, slightly deflating for the driver and probably the team," said Chase points leader Kenseth, the last driver to win a title before the advent of the Chase. "They're like, 'Oh man, we just got ourselves who knows how many points behind because we busted something.'
"Nobody likes to have that happen early; I've been in that spot a lot where we've had problems the first couple of weeks and been so far behind. You keep (up) the talk and you keep thinking it and you keep working toward it. Anything can happen. They can have trouble and (you're) right back in it.
"But it is somewhat deflating to start it off with a bad week."
Jeff Gordon won all four of his titles before 2004 and the arrival of the Chase. The Hendrick driver took a hit last year in the opener when he finished 35th. Already 12 points behind the leader before the start of the 10-race playoff, the result put him 47 points behind with only nine races in which to make up ground.
"I think that in that position, you have absolutely nothing to lose," Gordon said of the situation faced by Earnhardt Jr. and Logano. "Instead of maybe having a game plan where you were going to try to fine tune a setup, you can just go completely outside the box and just go for broke and make very gutsy calls on pit road. You can be more aggressive as a driver. The engineers can be more aggressive in the set-up as well.
"I think there is a part of you that just says 'OK, let's just see how high up in points we can get' and there is a part of you that says 'we go for broke, and if we get on a heck of a role, we can still do this.' You certainly never stop giving up hope."
It's not an uncommon feeling, Logano said, adding that his team has "had to fight like that and fight from behind all year.
"We'll just have to keep doing that," he said.
Ryan Newman will start from the pole for Sunday's race, with fellow Chase driver Kasey Kahne also on the front row. Gordon, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. will line up third through fifth, respectively.
Kenseth, the series' points leader, will start ninth.
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