Tony Stewart used a solid race car, great pit stops, and a timely rain shower to become the first multiple race winner in 2012, taking his Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet to victory lane at Auto Club Speedway in the Auto Club 400 on Sunday afternoon.
With his 46th career Sprint Cup victory, Stewart moved to fourth in the points standings as the series moves on to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia for the second short track race of the season.
Stewart has usually waited until the summer months for slicker racetracks to make his charge, and most of his wins have come after the month of May. However, momentum from last year’s title run and a new crew chief in Steve Addington have provided the man known as Smoke an early jolt in his attempt to repeat as champion.
Phoenix winner Denny Hamlin put his FedEx Toyota on the pole and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch placed his Interstate Batteries Toyota on the outside of the front row in front of approximately 90,000 fans at the Southern California speedway.
While Hamlin led the first lap, Busch took the lead on the following circuit and held the top spot for the next 80 laps, outside of the cycle of green-flag pit stops, which shuffled the lead around. Stewart would take his first lead at lap 85, using the lapped car of Juan Pablo Montoya as a pick to pass Busch and pull away.
Only a cycle of green flag pit stops just after half distance saw Stewart relinquish the lead to Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. However, Stewart regained the top spot and the only thing that stopped him today was Mother Nature. Steady rain was forecast for Fontana and the weather held off until lap 123, when the first yellow flag flew for the precipitation.
Johnson and Hamlin were the only lead lap drivers to pit under the caution, which left both drivers outside of the top ten. During the yellow, Johnson’s car began to smoke due to an oil line issue. The weather saved Johnson from a possible engine failure and lower finish. Due to the rain, the race was called at lap 129.
Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., last year’s winner Kevin Harvick, and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five behind Stewart. Positions 6-10 consisted of point’s leader Greg Biffle, continuing his solid start to 2012, Stewart’s teammate Ryan Newman, New Jersey’s Martin Truex, Jr., Busch’s older brother Kurt, and Johnson.
Biffle maintained his points lead but lost two points to Harvick today – the gap is seven going to a race that Harvick won last year. Earnhardt, Jr. is 17 points back in third and is a fan of Martinsville, finishing second to Harvick last April. Stewart, the winner last October at Martinsville, is 18 points behind. Truex, Jr. is fifth in points, 20 behind Biffle.