Tony Stewart still needs help to catch NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson, but he jump-started his climb back into contention for the series championship Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.
Stewart beat resilient Clint Bowyer to the finish line by .466 seconds In Sunday’s Pepsi Max 400 to win his first race at the 2-mile track, his second of the year and the 39th of his career.
In sharp contrast to Stewart’s win, which left him 107 points behind third-place finisher and Chase leader Jimmie Johnson, a handful of Chase drivers took big hits in the championship battle.
Down for the count are Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle, both of whom suffered blown engines. An ignition rotor failure KO’d Carl Edwards, and a late-race wreck with David Ragan all but dashed Kurt Busch’s chances for a second title.
Johnson, on the other hand, leaves his home track 36 points ahead of second-place Denny Hamlin, who came home eighth Sunday. With the Chase field spreading out four races into the series’ postseason, only Hamlin, Kevin Harvick (54 points back) and Jeff Gordon (85 back) are within 100 points of the four-time defending champion with six races left.
Non-Chasers Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin finished fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively. Harvick came home seventh, followed by Hamlin, Gordon and David Reutimann.
Stewart, who gets his engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, isn’t about to discount his chances of winning a third NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
“We’re doing everything we can do,” said Stewart, who took the lead one lap after a restart on Lap 188 and held it the rest of the way. “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 … they refuse to give up, they refuse to back down. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing here.”
Though happy to have a fast racecar, Bowyer was disappointed to leave Fontana without a victory. Bowyer won the first Chase race, at New Hampshire, only to have the victory tainted by a 150-point penalty after his winning car failed inspection at NASCAR’s tech center in Concord, N.C.
“A good run was crucial for our race team after what had happened with our win, and we got that today. But I was frustrated I didn’t get a win,” said Bowyer, who passed Johnson for the runner-up position after a restart with two laps left in the race.
“I really, really wanted to win just to set the record straight on what had happened with the last win. We’re capable of winning races, and if we keep doing what we did today, we’re going to win another one.”
It was a disastrous day for Roush Fenway Racing, which got a team-best finish of 30th from Matt Kenseth. Biffle’s engine exploded on Lap 40, relegating him to a 41st-place result.
On a restart 18 laps later, Edwards developed his ignition problem and lost 14 laps while his crew repaired his No. 99 Ford. Edwards finished 34th and, like Biffle, sustained a crushing blow to his championship hopes.
Biffle, last week’s winner at Kansas, summed it up after climbing from his car: “It’s disappointing, but what can you do? It broke. Everybody is giving this program 110 percent, so you can’t blame anybody. We were trying hard to win the title—and it isn’t going to happen this year.”
Likewise, Kyle Busch saw his title aspirations disappear in smoke when his engine blew on Lap 154. He finished 35th.
Gordon also took a hit in the points after being flagged for speeding on pit road during stops under caution on Lap 156. He rallied for a ninth-place finish but still lost significant ground to Johnson.
In sweeping the top three positions, Chevrolet won its 34th manufacturers’ championship in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.