Maybe, just maybe, Tony Stewart could replicate his improbable 2011 championship run and win another Sprint Cup title in his final NASCAR season before retirement.
That was the optimistic outlook entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup two weeks ago. And even if a fourth championship wasn't in the cards, perhaps Stewart could mirror Jeff Gordon's Cinderella-esque performance from last season where he claimed one of four spots in the final playoff round before falling just short.
But as is often the case, the idyllic scenario didn't come to fruition. Instead, as the first round of the Chase is set to conclude Sunday at Dover International Speedway, Stewart finds himself facing a virtual must-win scenario where anything short of a victory will lead to playoff elimination.
Of 16 Chase drivers, Stewart ranks 15th overall, trailing Kyle Larson by 11 points for the 12th and final transfer spot. The deficit by itself is not entirely insurmountable, but Stewart would not only need to finish roughly 11 positions ahead of Larson but also surpass both Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon, who are each currently six points ahead of Stewart.
That means Stewart amassing enough points to climb up the standings is unlikely, and if he wants to remain in the Chase he will need to win at Dover. And unfortunately, that too is unlikely.
Over the past six races Stewart's compiled six straight consecutive finishes of 16th or worse with an average result of 26th. More indicative of just how he's been off the pace is only once in those six races has he completed as many laps as the leader.
The recent stretch of futility has Stewart pragmatic about his chances at Dover. To win Sunday would be a challenge, requiring either some sudden speed unearthed in the No. 14 car or a fortuitous set of circumstances. That one or other would occur is dubious.
"Am I going to be upset if I don't make it to the next round? Yeah, absolutely," Stewart told reporters Wednesday, via USA Today. "That's natural. That's what a competitor should be like. If we don't, it's not the end of my year. I've got seven more weeks after this weekend to do the best I can, try to get another win and finish on a high note."
That his final Chase would end in a whimper, and not the loud bang befitting Stewart's oversized personality, seemed faint just weeks before the playoffs started.
After missing eight races with a broken back sustained in a January dune buggy accident and a sluggish few races upon returning, Stewart rolled off a streak where he had six finishes of seventh or better over eight races. Included was a stirring victory on the Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway road course where Stewart nudged, then body-slam leader Denny Hamlin on the final corner of the final lap to snap a three-year winless drought.
And when Stewart flashed his vintage cantankerous self by deliberately crashing Brian Scott and Ryan Newman in successive late regular season races, it gave credence to the fact he may have one more championship push left in him.
Finishes of 16th and 23rd to open the Chase have Stewart in his current predicament where he needs a win to avoid becoming a Round 1 casualty. That's all compounded by an aerodynamic rules package and tire combination that the three-time Cup champion says negatively impacts the quality of racing and prevents a driver from overcoming any deficiencies.
"When we come off the truck, we fight the same thing for three days and there's nothing I can do to fix it," Stewart said, via USA Today. "And that's part of what's so frustrating for me as a driver and part of the reason I'm ready to do something different.
"I can't make a difference anymore. I can't go out there and do different things with my feet or hands or run a different line and fix the problem. I used to be able to do that. You just get so frustrated, you can't see straight."
Thus, any notion of conjuring some old magic has given way to the harsh realities of the Chase, where those who can excel will advance and those who can't will be eliminated -- a playoff fate Stewart will encounter on Sunday.