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Still Steaming

Despite taking some lumps at Lowe's, Tony Stewart finished strong and remains fired up for a final Cup charge

LURKING BENEATH Tony Stewart's notorious bluster—his truculence toward reporters, his tendency to spread the blame for his misfortunes among his fellow drivers, his Vesuvian outbursts of temper—lies an almost desperate desire to maintain control. He hates to be at the mercy of anyone else. This was evident in the days leading up to last Saturday night's Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, when Stewart frequently lamented the fact that his fortunes in the Chase for the Nextel Cup were so dependent on the actions of other drivers. "You've got 31 other guys that can dictate who wins the championship and who doesn't," he said, referring to the cars that rank below the top 12 in the standings. "We're not racing those other guys for points, so why should they be dictating where we stand amongst each other?"

Unfortunately for Stewart, after his seventh-place finish in the Bank of America 500—won by points leader Jeff Gordon—his prospects for taking a third Cup title are now almost entirely out of his hands. Stewart came to Charlotte ranked fourth in the standings, 154 points behind Gordon, but left trailing by 198. With five races remaining, Stewart's only chance to close the gap is for Gordon to run into bad luck, something the four-time champ has seldom done in a campaign in which he has led the circuit in wins (six, tied with Jimmie Johnson) as well as top five and top 10 finishes (18 and 24, respectively).

At Lowe's, Stewart's worst fears were realized as he was done in by an accident involving two non-Chase drivers. While running fifth, he stopped for fuel under a caution flag on Lap 177, only to have his number 20 Chevy hit twice as he attempted to leave his pit box—first by Paul Menard (who's 34th in the standings) and then by Kasey Kahne (20th). Menard, who was trying to pit in the stall immediately in front of Stewart's, merely rubbed some paint off the side of the 20 car, but Kahne, who was shooting for a stall farther up the row, mashed in Stewart's right front fender. By the time Stewart got his car back onto the track, he had been shuffled all the way back to 28th place.

Afterward Stewart bolted from the track without speaking to reporters. "We're not out of this yet," insists his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli. "We're going to keep digging."

If Stewart, who remains in fourth place, has one thing going for him—besides his considerable talent—it's that he seems to thrive on adversity. In 2006, after failing to qualify for the Chase, he won three of the season's final 10 races. And last July, after getting into a public spat with teammate Denny Hamlin following an accident at Daytona that caused Stewart to finish 39th, he ran off his first three wins of the year in the next four races. His strong finish at Charlotte was a testament to his resiliency. So it comes as no surprise that even Gordon refuses to count Stewart out of the Chase, saying, "He's still the most dangerous one out there as far as I'm concerned."

ONLY AT SI.COM Mark Beech's Power Rankings and Racing Fan columns.

Short Laps

1 Clint Bowyer just won't go away. The Chase's breakout star had another strong run last Saturday, taking second in only his fourth Lowe's start. Though he lost ground to Jeff Gordon—Bowyer is third, 78 points back—he's proving himself a Cup contender for years to come.

2 What's happened to Matt Kenseth (above)? The 2003 champ is one of the steadiest drivers in the Cup garage, but his Chase performance has been awful. After four straight finishes outside the top 25, including a 34th at Charlotte, where he was involved in three wrecks, he's in last place in the points. "I have absolutely no excuse," he said. "I really feel like an idiot."



NO JOKE Stewart (20 and inset) lost his prerace grin when Kahne (9) crunched him.



[See caption above]