Stewart Rides Strong Restart to NSCS California Victory
Tony Stewart moved from 10th to fifth and within 107 points of the Chase of the Sprint Cup lead by sailing to his second victory of the season and first in 19 tries at Auto Club Speedway.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion was one of 14 leaders in an event that saw drivers frequently race five wide through the spacious and sweeping Auto Club Speedway turns. The Stewart-Haas driver took the lead in the 200-lap race for the third time by beating Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports machine on a Lap 198 restart.
Stewart seized the 400-mile race lead for good in the No. 14 on the high line at the exit of Turn 2 and took the checkered flag 0.486 of a second ahead of Clint Bowyer, who won a torrid closing-laps battle for position with defending series champion Jimmie Johnson. Kasey Kahne finished fourth and Ryan Newman took fifth.
"I knew we were going to have our hands full with Jimmie. Thank goodness Clint Bowyer got up there, mixed it up and broke his momentum.
"I just knew the restart was going to be critical. If I could get through one and two and still have the lead off two, then I would have a shot at it. We got a good restart, Clint was there to keep Jimmie honest and that just let us do our own thing on the last lap.
"I didn't think we were good enough to do it, but man, this team did an awesome job in the pits that got us an opportunity again. We're going to need some help (to win the championship), but we're doing everything we can do. I'm proud of these guys. They refuse to give up, they refuse to back down. We'll just keep doing what we're doing," Stewart said after taking his 39th career Sprint Cup victory along with his ninth top-five and 16th top-10 finish of 2010.
He relied on his well-documented versatility to generate his fifth top-five and 11th top-10 Auto Club Speedway showing. He improved his career average finish on the facility's two-mile oval to 14th. "This track is so momentum driven and when it's as slick as it is here, it puts it (the race) back in the driver's hands. Normally, I think that's going to be my advantage, but I've just been terrible here. We've had times when we've been good, but I've really struggled as a driver here over the course of 12 years.
"It's just a very difficult place to get a hold of. If you can get your car balanced, you really can drive away from the majority of the field and get a pretty big gap, but it's hard to do. You have to have that balance perfect. Clint obviously had a great car, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie, Kasey Kahne - these were guys that had cars that were really good. It was just a matter of who could get a gap early in the run and be able to take care of their stuff," Stewart said.
Bowyer rolled to his second top-five finish in the past four races and first since his New Hampshire Motor Speedway victory that drew him a much-publicized 150-point penalty. The Richard Childress Racing driver started 13th at Auto Club Speedway and led the race four times for a total of 40 laps. He remains 12th in the series standings and 247 points outside the Chase lead.
"I'm happy to get things turned around after the last two weeks we've had. I'm frustrated, I want to redeem ourselves. We're a race-winning team and we needed to go out and prove that last one (New Hampshire) wasn't a hoax," Bowyer said.
Johnson delivered his eighth top-five and ninth top-10 Auto Club Speedway finish in as many starts. He picked up his third consecutive top-three finish and extended his Chase for the Sprint Cup lead 28 points to 36 over the second-place Denny Hamlin, who placed eighth in the race.
"I think, if it stayed green (at the end), this 48 car would've been in Victory Lane. We were really catching Tony fast on the top side. I just really didn't have anything on the bottom in three and four and that (final) restart allowed Clint to get by me.
"It was a good day overall, we certainly wanted to be in Victory Lane, but if you're going finish in the top three week in and week out, you're going to have a shot (at the championship) come Homestead. That's all we're after," Johnson said.
Hamlin knocked down his fourth top-10 finish in his past five starts and his 14th of the season after starting 34th following a transmission change on his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing car.
"All in all, it's a decent day. Can't be too disappointed with it, especially from where we started. It's somewhat uplifting that we got out of here with a top-10 day.
"Those restarts killed us at the end. We were terrible on restarts and I needed to go green those last 20 laps to catch the No. 48 and those guys. That was our Achilles' heel all day. We'd lose three or four spots every lap for the first couple and then we would make them back up," Hamlin said.
Despite surrendering ground to the four-time and defending Chase champion, Hamlin is optimistic about his chances of remaining in this season's title mix.
"We are in a decent spot, not in a great spot. We run better the second half of the Chase, we always have. I'm definitely upbeat about the fact that we have some great race tracks coming up for us and we are putting those guys [the No. 48 team] in a position where if they make one mistake we are going to be right there," he added.
The fifth of 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup Series races will be held at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 16. Coverage begins on ABC Television, Performance Racing Network radio and Sirius XM 128 at 7:30 p.m.
Story by Mike Schmaltz