Johnson extends Chase lead
Stewart pulls away for first career win at Fontana
“Smoke” finally got his win in California. Jimmie Johnson could be ready to smoke the field again.
Tony Stewart pulled away from Johnson on a late restart Sunday to win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the first time in 19 tries, but it was the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion who walked away with a bigger points lead.
Johnson finished third after a late pass by Clint Bowyer and has a 36-point lead over Denny Hamlin with six Chase races left.
“Great day overall,” Johnson said. “We certainly wanted to be in Victory Lane, but if can finish in the top three week in and week out, you’re going to have a shot.”
Stewart wouldn’t let him get to the checkers in California. Not after all the struggles he’s had there.
Stewart was well back in the Chase after running out of fuel while leading late at Loudon and struggling at Dover. He had a good showing last week at Kansas, finishing fourth, but still entered this weekend 10th in points, 127 behind Johnson.
A so-so qualifying run Friday had him starting 22nd, but Stewart quickly worked his way to the front in a lead-swapping 400-mile race that served as the last fall date at Fontana. He was fifth by the race’s midpoint, took the lead with 51 laps left and snagged it back after briefly falling behind Juan Pablo Montoya.
In the lead again late, Stewart opted not to pit after an accident took out Chase driver Kurt Busch and pulled away from Johnson on the restart with two laps left.
Bowyer passed Johnson, but was nowhere close to Stewart at the end, finally giving “Smoke” his win in California and improving his Chase chances.
“We doing everything we can,” said Stewart, who moved up to fifth in the Chase, 107 points behind Johnson. “We’re going to need some help, but we’re doing everything we can do. I’m proud of these guys and just so thankful.”
Bowyer had a solid day in his first race without crew chief Shane Wilson, who was suspended after the car failed inspection after the New Hampshire race.
With Scott Miller calling the pit shots, Bowyer worked his way up from the 13th starting position and ended up leading four separate times for 40 laps. He dropped back late, but made another charge, passing Johnson on the last lap for second.
He wasn’t the only Chase driver to rally.
Kevin Harvick moved up from a poor qualifying session to finish seventh and remain third in the Chase. Hamlin was eighth after starting at the back of the pack due to a new transmission. Jeff Gordon overcame a late speeding penalty on pit road to finish ninth and move up to fourth.
It wasn’t such a good day for several other Chase drivers.
Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards all had their chances dented by engine troubles, and Matt Kenseth finished a disappointing 30th. Kurt Busch also was knocked out by a late crash and finished 21st. None of the drivers is closer than 140 points after the disastrous results.
Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel edged out teammate Mark Webber to win the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, Japan, and move closer to the Formula One championship lead.
Vettel started from pole position at the Suzuka circuit and led for most of the race to defend his Japanese GP title and pressure driver’s championship leader Webber.
Ferrari’s Felipe Alonso finished third to remain in contention for the title.
McLaren’s Jenson Button was fourth, followed by teammate Lewis Hamilton.
Larry Dixon raced to his 12th Top Fuel victory in 12 final-round appearances this year, beating championship rival Cory McClenathan in the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, Pa.
In the final, both dragsters lost traction at points down the track, with Dixon managing to cross the finish line first with a 4.906-second run at 295.34 mph. McClenathan had a 5.103 at 199.70.
Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car), Dave Connolly (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also won at the fourth of six playoff races.