Tony Stewart made all the right moves Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, and the last one proved decisive in taking the three-time champion to Victory Lane in the rain-shortened Auto Club 400.
After raindrops slowed the race on Lap 124, Stewart, the race leader, faked a move toward pit road but stayed on the track and matched the pace car’s speed of 65 mph, a far cry from the lightning-fast laps he ran under the green flag.
But that move — staying out and running slow caution laps before NASCAR stopped the race on Lap 129 — proved decisive for the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, who claimed his second victory of the season, his second at Fontana and the 46th of his career, tying him with Buck Baker for 14th on the career victory list.
Kyle Busch, who stayed out with Stewart, finished second, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards completing the top five.
Greg Biffle ran sixth, followed by Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch, all of whom gambled on protracted rain and stayed on the track during the initial shower. Jimmie Johnson and polesitter Denny Hamlin came to pit road and finished 10th and 11th, respectively.
“I don’t think that I faked him out,” Stewart said of Hamlin. “I’m sure he had made his decision already — looked good, though.”
Never before has Stewart won two Cup races this early in a season. Stewart was at a loss for an explanation.
“I don’t know, but I like it,” he said. “I’m really proud of (crew chief) Steve Addington and all of our guys. This Office Depot Chevy was bad fast.”
In Johnson’s case, the top-10 was a godsend, given that the No. 48 Chevrolet developed an oil line problem as the cars circled the two-mile track under caution. Johnson’s car began smoking and he kept it rolling on the apron until NASCAR stopped the race.
The event ran caution-free for 124 laps, until rain in Turns 3 and 4 brought out the first yellow flag of the afternoon. Stewart had retained the lead through a third cycle of green-flag pit stops, with Hamlin chasing him.
Hamlin had made a run at the leader when the rain began to fall, but he and Johnson opted to give up positions in the top five and come to pit road, after Stewart made his feint toward the pits but remained on the racetrack.
Feint or not, Hamlin was committed to the trip to pit road, and he explained the decision.
“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),” Hamlin said as the rain intensified. “(In that case), your chance of winning decreases greatly.
“So you could give up a few spots if it finishes up here and lose a chance to win in the grand scheme of things . . . We had finally gotten to (Stewart’s) bumper when the rain came.”
That left Busch in second place. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota had led 80 laps to that point, but Busch had rubbed the wall in traffic before the halfway point, and the handling of his car deteriorated thereafter.
Busch wasn’t dismayed that the race ended when it did.
“I wish we would have been able to race the whole thing, on the one hand,” he said, “but, on the other hand, I’m kind of glad we’re not, because we have a little bit of damage that slowed us down there . . .
“Trying to run back with Stewart’s lap times, that’s when I was trying too hard, too close to the fence, got myself in trouble there — caught the right side a little bit.”
Notes: Biffle retained the series lead, seven points ahead of second-place Harvick . . . Earnhardt’s third-place finish elevated him to third in the standings, 17 points back of Biffle and one ahead of Stewart in fourth.