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.
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