NEW YORK (AP) – 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, where 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.’ It’s added an element of excitement.”

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 nearby Columbus, Ind., Stewart spent nine frustrating years trying to win at the Brickyard.

That milestone helped overshadow much bad behavior, and he’s currently 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. “He’s controversial and draws attention to the sport.”

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.

Busch’s teammates are Biffle, 2003 champ Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Carl Edwards.

Stewart isn’t phased by the five-man Roush field.

“It doesn’t matter to me, I don’t care if there’s nine Roush cars in it,” he said. “You’ve still got to beat the nine drivers in the Chase, no matter who they drive for.

“I really feel you have to watch all these guys. You can’t count out a guy like Matt Kenseth, who has been a past champion, Rusty Wallace knows how to win a championship and Mark has been so close so many times, he’s hungry to get his first.”

Joining the Roush contingent, Stewart, Newman and 1989 NASCAR champion Wallace will be Jimmie Johnson and Jeremy Mayfield.

Two years ago, Kenseth won the Cup championship with only one victory. Then NASCAR adopted the Chase format.

Only three years ago, Edwards was a substitute school teacher in Missouri. Biffle had a strong season and is tied with Stewart for a series-best five victories. Martin, a four-time championship runner-up, has put his retirement plans on hold.

“He’s been so incredible and respectful of me being the old-timer,” Martin said of Busch. “I’m a huge Kurt Busch fan and always will be.”

Busch, who signed to drive for Roger Penske in 2007, isn’t sure if Roush will keep him under contract next season or let him leave early for Penske. Busch beat Johnson by just eight points last year in the closest championship race in series.

“It’s something that’s very special to win a championship,” Busch said. “We want to do something even more special – win a back-to-back championship. We’re definitely putting the pressure on ourselves to do it.”

AP-ES-09-15-05 2049EDT

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