After raindrops slowed the race on Lap 124, Tony Stewart, the race leader, faked a move toward pit road but stayed on the track and matched the pace car's speed of 65 mph, a far cry from the lightning-fast laps he ran under the green flag.
By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
FONTANA, Calif. — Tony Stewart made all the right moves Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, and the last one proved decisive in taking the three-time champion to Victory Lane in the rain-shortened Auto Club 400.
After raindrops slowed the race on Lap 124, Stewart, the race leader, faked a move toward pit road but stayed on the track and matched the pace car's speed of 65 mph, a far cry from the lightning-fast laps he ran under the green flag.
But that move — staying out and running slow caution laps before NASCAR stopped the race on Lap 129 — proved decisive for the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, who claimed his second victory of the season, his second at Fontana and the 46th of his career, tying him with Buck Baker for 14th on the career victory list.
Kyle Busch, who stayed out with Stewart, finished second, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards completing the top five.
Greg Biffle ran sixth, followed by Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch, all of whom gambled on protracted rain and stayed on the track during the initial shower. Jimmie Johnson and polesitter Denny Hamlin came to pit road and finished 10th and 11th, respectively.
“I don't think that I faked him out,” Stewart said of Hamlin. “I'm sure he had made his decision already — looked good, though.”
Never before has Stewart won two Cup races this early in a season. Stewart was at a loss for an explanation.
“I don't know, but I like it,” he said. “I'm really proud of (crew chief) Steve Addington and all of our guys. This Office Depot Chevy was bad fast.”
In Johnson's case, the top-10 was a godsend, given that the No. 48 Chevrolet developed an oil line problem as the cars circled the two-mile track under caution. Johnson's car began smoking and he kept it rolling on the apron until NASCAR stopped the race.
The event ran caution-free for 124 laps, until rain in Turns 3 and 4 brought out the first yellow flag of the afternoon. Stewart had retained the lead through a third cycle of green-flag pit stops, with Hamlin chasing him.
Hamlin had made a run at the leader when the rain began to fall, but he and Johnson opted to give up positions in the top five and come to pit road, after Stewart made his feint toward the pits but remained on the racetrack.
Feint or not, Hamlin was committed to the trip to pit road, and he explained the decision.
“We were planning on the race going back to green, and if it doesn't, we'll lose some spots, but if we chose to stay out there, we would have to be behind all the cars that pitted (if the race restarted),” Hamlin said as the rain intensified. “(In that case), your chance of winning decreases greatly.
“So you could give up a few spots if it finishes up here and lose a chance to win in the grand scheme of things … We had finally gotten to (Stewart's) bumper when the rain came.”
That left Busch in second place. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota had led 80 laps to that point, but Busch had rubbed the wall in traffic before the halfway point, and the handling of his car deteriorated thereafter.
Busch wasn't dismayed that the race ended when it did.
“I wish we would have been able to race the whole thing, on the one hand,” he said, “but, on the other hand, I'm kind of glad we're not, because we have a little bit of damage that slowed us down there …
“Trying to run back with Stewart's lap times, that's when I was trying too hard, too close to the fence, got myself in trouble there — caught the right side a little bit.”
Notes: Biffle retained the series lead, seven points ahead of second-place Harvick … Earnhardt's third-place finish elevated him to third in the standings, 17 points back of Biffle and one ahead of Stewart in fourth.
1. (9) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 129, $323,450.
2. (2) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 129, $259,698.
3. (14) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 129, $170,165.
4. (7) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 129, $181,551.
5. (12) Carl Edwards, Ford, 129, $161,056.
6. (4) Greg Biffle, Ford, 129, $119,590.
7. (6) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 129, $146,448.
8. (13) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 129, $131,504.
9. (23) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 129, $138,898.
10. (10) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 129, $142,201.
11. (1) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 129, $149,771.
12. (3) Mark Martin, Toyota, 129, $96,355.
13. (11) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 129, $122,469.
14. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 129, $102,105.
15. (25) AJ Allmendinger, Dodge, 129, $134,330.
16. (15) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 129, $138,866.
17. (24) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 128, $122,096.
18. (17) Brad Keselowski, Dodge, 128, $125,250.
19. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 128, $98,705.
20. (22) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 128, $114,163.
21. (29) Marcos Ambrose, Ford, 128, $118,388.
22. (19) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, 128, $127,180.
23. (33) Casey Mears, Ford, 128, $102,163.
24. (8) Joey Logano, Toyota, 128, $95,280.
25. (28) Aric Almirola, Ford, 128, $124,016.
26. (21) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 128, $130,566.
27. (18) David Reutimann, Chevrolet, 127, $85,230.
28. (26) Bobby Labonte, Toyota, 127, $104,188.
29. (40) Travis Kvapil, Toyota, 127, $101,777.
30. (41) David Gilliland, Ford, 127, $85,480.
31. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 127, $83,280.
32. (16) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 126, $111,613.
33. (34) Dave Blaney, Chevrolet, 126, $80,355.
34. (42) Ken Schrader, Ford, 125, $88,155.
35. (36) JJ Yeley, Chevrolet, 125, $79,930.
36. (31) Landon Cassill, Toyota, 124, $106,125.
37. (30) Josh Wise, Ford, Vibration, 51, $79,555.
38. (32) Michael McDowell, Ford, Vibration, 40, $79,307.
39. (20) David Stremme, Toyota, Rear Gear, 36, $75,855.
40. (39) Mike Bliss, Toyota, Transmission, 18, $75,675.
41. (35) Scott Riggs, Chevrolet, Vibration, 17, $75,505.
42. (43) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, Vibration, 6, $75,415.
43. (37) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, Engine, 1, $83,769.
Average Speed: 160.166 mph.
Time of Race: 1 hour, 36 minutes, 39 seconds.
Margin of Victory: Caution.
Caution Flags: 1 for 5 laps.
Lead Changes: 9 among 5 drivers.
Lap Leaders: D. Hamlin 1; Kyle Busch 2-67; D. Hamlin 68; J. Gordon 69; J. Johnson 70; Kyle Busch 71-84; T. Stewart 85-104; J. Johnson 105; J. Gordon 106-107; T. Stewart 108-129.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Kyle Busch 2 times for 80 laps; T. Stewart 2 times for 42 laps; J. Gordon 2 times for 3 laps; J. Johnson 2 times for 2 laps; D. Hamlin 2 times for 2 laps.
Top 12 in Points: G. Biffle - 195; K. Harvick - 188; D. Earnhardt Jr. - 178; T. Stewart - 177; M. Truex Jr. - 175; M. Kenseth - 173; D. Hamlin - 171; C. Bowyer - 157; J. Johnson - 156; R. Newman - 155; P. Menard - 148; C. Edwards - 146.
3M Lap Leader: Kyle Busch, 80 Laps
American Ethanol Green Flag Restart Award: Kyle Busch
Coors Light Pole Award: Denny Hamlin, 186.403 mph
DIRECTV Crew Chief of the Race: Dave Rogers, No. 18, Kyle Busch
Mahle Clevite Engine Builder of the Race: Toyota Racing Development (TRD), No. 18
Mobil 1 Oil Driver of the Race: Tony Stewart
Moog Chassis Parts Problem Solver of the Race: Nick Harrison (No. 51, Kurt Busch crew chief), 0.069 secs
USG Improving the Finish: Kurt Busch, 14 places