FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Tony Stewart figured the only way to work his way back from a big hole to start the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship was to chip away.
He took one small step last week by finishing fourth at Kansas and took a huge one at a place where he had never won before.
Stewart vaulted five spots in the Chase standings by pulling away from points leader Jimmie Johnson on a late restart on Sunday to win at Auto Club Speedway for the first time in 19 career starts.
Stewart’s still 107 points back in the Chase, but it’s a lot better than where he was just a day before.
“The last two weeks have been big in that direction,” Stewart after moving up from fifth to 10th. “It’s not a guarantee that we can stay on this pace and have those guys lose points to us, but we’re headed in the right direction.”
“Smoke” got his win, but Johnson may be ready to smoke the field again.
The four-time defending Sprint Cup champion had made his now-expected surge to the top of the Chase standings, using a win at Dover and a second-place finish last week at Kansas after a poor qualifying session to move past Denny Hamlin.
This one has a little different feel, though, the aura of invincibility gone from the No. 48 after an atypical up-and-down season. Nine drivers were within 101 points after Kansas, making it one of the tightest races Johnson has faced during his Cup-after-Cup run.
Still, he had won four of his previous six starts at Fontana, including the past three fall races, and started a solid eighth Sunday while many of those chasing him had trouble in Friday’s qualifying.
Five of the first six spots on the grid were nabbed by non-Chasers and only Matt Kenseth (third) and Greg Biffle (seventh) were in the top 10.
After a day of moving — some forward, some back — by most of the Chasers, Johnson was there again, back at the front, in position to win. He didn’t, unable to catch Stewart or keep Clint Bowyer at bay, but still finished third to push his points lead to 36 over Hamlin with six races left.
“Great day overall,” Johnson said. “We certainly wanted to be in Victory Lane, but if can finish in the top three week in and week out, you’re going to have a shot.
Stewart wouldn’t let him get to the checkers in California. Not after all the struggles he’s had there.
Stewart was well back in the Chase after running out of fuel while leading late at Loudon and struggling at Dover. He had a good showing last week at Kansas, finishing fourth, but still entered this weekend 10th in points, 127 behind Johnson.
A so-so qualifying run Friday had him starting 22nd, but Stewart quickly worked his way to the front in a lead-swapping 400-mile race that served as the last fall date at Fontana. He was fifth by the race’s midpoint, took the lead with 51 laps left and snagged it back after briefly falling behind Juan Pablo Montoya.
In the lead again late, Stewart opted not to pit after an accident took out Chase driver Kurt Busch and pulled away from Johnson on the restart with two laps left. Bowyer passed Johnson, but was nowhere close to Stewart at the end, finally giving “Smoke” his win in California and improving his once-weak Chase chances.
“We doing everything we can,” said Stewart, who moved up to fifth in the Chase, 107 points behind Johnson. “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.”
Bowyer had a solid day in his first race without suspended crew chief Shane Wilson.
Bowyer was elk hunting when NASCAR upheld his team’s 150-point penalty and dropped Wilson’s suspension from six to four races for failing inspection after the New Hampshire race. California marked the start of Wilson’s suspension.
With Scott Miller calling the pit shots, Bowyer worked his way up from the 13th starting position and ended up leading four separate times for 40 laps. He dropped back late, but made another charge, passing Johnson on the last lap for second.
“I was really worried this was going to be a major struggle being without my crew chief, but Scott Miller and everybody filled in well,” said Bowyer, still 12th in the points, 247 points off the lead.
He wasn’t the only Chase driver to rally.
Kevin Harvick moved up from a poor qualifying session to finish seventh and remain third in the Chase. Hamlin was eighth after starting at the back of the pack due to a new transmission. Jeff Gordon overcame a late speeding penalty on pit road to finish ninth and move up to fourth.
It wasn’t such a good day for several other Chase drivers.
Kyle Busch, Biffle and Carl Edwards all had their chances dented by engine troubles, and Kenseth finished a disappointing 30th. Kurt Busch also was knocked out by a late crash and finished 21st. None of the drivers are closer than 140 points after the disastrous results.
“That shows how fast things can change out there,” Kurt Busch said.