Commentary: Stewart is fading in title chase

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tony Stewart might be NASCAR's most talented driver, and he's undoubtedly the most volatile.

His skill has helped him collect two championships, 32 victories and more than $62 million.

His raw emotion likely has cost him just as much, including a shot at a third Nextel Cup title.

Oh, sure, Stewart still can mount an incredible five-race rally that might put him back in contention. But with five races left in this Chase for the Championship, he's fourth in points and fading by the week.

A miserable three-race stretch that can be blamed on bad luck, mental error and a simmering feud with Paul Menard has dropped Stewart from two points out of first to a distant 198 behind leader Jeff Gordon.

"It isn't over until you tell me mathematically we can't do it," crew chief Greg Zipadelli declared after Saturday night's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

The reality is it will take a miracle for Stewart to win the title, and that makes him the biggest disappointment of this Chase.

When the Chase started Sept. 16 in New Hampshire, there was tremendous potential for a showdown between the top three drivers. Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Stewart -- with a combined eight championships -- opened the 10-race hunt ranked 1-2-3 with 30 points separating them.

So long as the trio kept up the pace, there was no reason to believe they wouldn't fight all the way to the finish Nov. 18.

Gordon, with two Chase wins, and Johnson, with three top-10 finishes, have delivered. Stewart was with them until a crazy day in Kansas sent him into a downward spiral.

That race three weeks ago had two lengthy rain delays and a flurry of freak accidents. So when Zipadelli gambled to put Stewart in the lead before the second rain delay, they thought they had the win locked down.

But when racing resumed, Stewart got stacked up in traffic, and contact with another car crumpled his fender. They decided not to come in for a repair, but that backfired when sheet metal rubbed against the tire, causing it to blow. Stewart's temper wasn't far behind. He slammed equipment through his wrecked car before climbing out for a 39th-place finish.

Stewart made two tactical errors that cost him a win at Talladega, and last weekend, after Menard blocked Stewart's exit from the pits, Stewart ran into Kasey Kahne.