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Take a steady, California afternoon rain shower, add some ‘Smoke," and what you get is a victory for Tony Stewart and the Stewart-Haas Racing team in the NASCAR Auto Club 400 Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Rain started falling on lap 123 of the scheduled 200-lap Sprint Cup race, bringing out the first caution flag in the race and the longest stretch of green-flag racing this season. At that point, Stewart, the race leader, pulled off a bit of trickery, faking a move to pit lane but at the last second pulling back onto the racetrack, while Denny Hamlin, who was running second to Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson all pitted.
Stewart was betting on a protracted rain delay, and with the race more than half completed, were it to be called, the win would go to the man they call "Smoke" as the race leader. As it turned out, he bet right.
Stewart's win was his second career checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway in 21 starts at the two-mile Southern California venue, and his seventh victory in his last 15 races dating back to his championship 2011 season.
The decision to stay out on the track and run slow caution laps behind the safety car proved to be a winning call as NASCAR officials brought out the red flag five laps later and ordered all the cars back to pit road. Thirty minutes after that, with the forecast calling for continued rain showers on into the evening, the decision to call the race, awarding the victory to the front-runner Stewart.
Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing, who qualified second behind pole-sitter and teammate Hamlin and stayed out with Stewart after the first and only caution, was awarded second place, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards of Columbia, Mo., who posted his second top-five finish in the Sprint Cup Series in 2012.
Hamlin and five-time champion Johnson, who chose to pit during the caution, finished 11th and 10th, respectively. For Johnson, the 10th-place finish was a blessing in disguise. His No. 48 Chevrolet Impala began smoking during the caution laps.
Asked about his decision to give up prime track position by pitting under the caution, pole-sitter Hamlin told reporters afterward: "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) (In that case), your chance of winning decreases greatly," he explained.
Kansan Clint Bowyer started 14th in the No. 15 Toyota he now pilots for Michael Waltrip Racing and came in 11th at Fontana. Bowyer, from Emporia, dropped one place in the drivers' standings, from eighth to ninth. Edwards' fifth-place finish, however, advanced him from 15th to 12th in the points standings.
Harvick remains second in the overall standings, a mere seven points back of the leader Greg Biffle. Earnhardt and Stewart were the biggest movers in the standings this week, each gaining three positions to third and fourth, respectively.
By winning at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday, Stewart, a notoriously slow starter historically in the Sprint Cup Series, recorded his 47th career victory in his 467th career race. That tires him with Buck Baker for 14th on the all-time NASCAR win list. It was the 12th win by a Chevrolet at Auto Club Speedway, the most of any manufacturer. Chevrolet has won the last five Sprint Cup races there.
Next week the Sprint Cup field heads back east for the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at historic Martinsville Speedway.
Denny Hamlin will start from the pole in Sunday's Auto Club 500 Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. It is Hamlin's first top-10 start of the 2012 season and the second time in 12 career starts at the Southern California racetrack that he has won the pole position. He also started on the front row at this race a year ago.
Hamlin beat out Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and Mark Martin of Michael Waltrip Racing who will start out in the first three spots on the starting grid for the fifth Sprint Cup race of NASCAR's 2012 season. All three drivers will be in Toyota Camrys. This is Hamlin's 10th pole in his eight-year career driving in NASCAR's top racing series.
"Everyone had a different way of doing it (qualifying)," Hamlin said. "It seemed that there were some guys who were five lanes up and some who just worked their way down (on the track). We were one of the few cars that ran all the way on the bottom."
With two of the first three positions on the starting grid, Joe Gibbs is hoping he will be in good position to win for the first time at Auto Club Speedway. Fontana is the only active track where Gibbs has not won a NASCAR race.
Greg Biffle, who pilots the No. 16 car for Roush-Fenway Racing is the points leader after four events. Biffle owns a nine-point lead over Kevin Harvick and 12 points over teammate Matt Kenseth. Hamlin is in fifth place currently in the drivers' standings. Clint Bowyer of Emporia, Kan., who finished fourth last weekend at Bristol, is in eighth place in the standings, and Columbia, Mo.-native Carl Edwards is currently 15th, 50 points back of the leader.
Bowyer, who has a seat on the Michael Waltrip race team this season, will start 11th on Sunday at Fontana, alongside Edwards in the No. 99 Roush-Fenway Ford in the 12th spot at the start.
For more information on NASCAR and the 2012 Sprint Cup racing series.
NASCAR is looking like they will be having their second Monday race of the year. Sunday's race in Fontana, Calif. is expected to be hit with a Pacific rain storm that is coming in from Northern California. The race is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. ET, but that is when the rain is to hit the race track, and there is no doubt that there will be rain on Sunday.
Once the rain starts coming down it is not expected to stop until about 9 a.m. ET time. A Monday race is likely the outcome and if they race on Monday the race the backup time is 12 p.m. ET which would be 9 a.m. local time. At that point in the morning the weather is expected to be sunny with temperatures in the low 50s.
Much of the NASCAR talk lately has centered around Jimmie Johnson and NASCAR's decision rescind some of the penalties levied on him earlier this year, but there's still a race to be held this weekend.
Unfortunately for NASCAR fans, there is a chance of wet weather this weekend, which could potentially alter the schedule this weekend for the Auto Club 400. Luckily, SB Nation's NASCAR gurus have all NASCAR fans covered with a schedule this weekend -- rain or shine.
12:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup practice - Partly sunny - temp: 57
1:30 p.m. EDT
Nationwide qualifying - Partly sunny - temp: 60
3:50 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup final practice - Mostly sunny- temp: 67
5:30 p.m. EDT
Nationwide race - Mostly sunny - temp: 68
3:00 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race - Cloudy with possible rain showers - temp: 58
12:00 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race (possible back-up time) - Mostly cloudy, chance of scattered rain - temp:50
Possible rain showers doesn't sound so bad, so it seems probable that the race will be completed on Sunday.
For more on all things NASCAR, be sure to check out SB Nation's NASCAR hub.
The NASCAR season is now well underway and Carl Edwards is a bit out of his typical position at No. 15 in the Sprint Cup standings. Coming up to the next race in Fontana, Edwards has some work to do to make up ground. Its’ no surprise, then, that Fox Sports’ Larry McReynolds believes Edwards is the driver to watch this weekend.
“I’m continuing to observe and watch closer and closer the 99 car,” says McReynolds. “Carl (Edwards), it’s still early and I don’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction here, but I’m a son of a gun if they aren’t starting to take a little bit of a look that Denny Hamlin and the 11 team had last year after losing the 2010 championship. They may bust out this week and lead a bunch of laps and win the race.”
After tying in Sprint Cup points with Tony Stewart in 2011, Edwards has endured a slow start in 2012. That can change very quickly with an impressive weekend in southern California.
Missouri native NASCAR driver Carl Edwards prepared for this weekend's Sprint Cup race by training with a Fort Worth, Texas SWAT team.