NASCAR Sprint Cup: Tony Stewart wins the Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway
Tony Stewart posted his first career win at Auto Club Speedway in one of the more entertaining races held at the Fontana track when he won the Pepsi Max 400 this afternoon.
With seven laps left, David Ragan and Kurt Busch tangled in the first major wreck of the day. Stewart was leading the race at the time but Jimmie Johnson was starting to chase him down. What that set up was a two-lap shootout between Stewart and Johnson.
Stewart, who climbed five spots to fifth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings with the win, chose to take the high line and he grabbed the lead by the backstretch. When he took the white flag he looked to be in command. The battle was then for second, and that was won by Clint Bowyer.
There was also a caution for the always present debris with 18 laps to go. Bowyer, who thought he had the race won, was rather upset over the call, wondering where the debris was located.
The top 10 in the race were: Stewart, Bowyer, Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and David Reutimann.
Johnson maintained his slim lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings over Hamlin. The official standings are: Johnson with 5,673 points, followed by Hamlin (-36), Harvick (-54), Gordon (-85), Stewart (-107), Kurt Busch (-140), Carl Edwards (-162), Jeff Burton (-177), Kyle Busch (-187), Greg Biffle (-215), Matt Kenseth (-241) and Bowyer (-247).
On lap 155 of the Pepsi Max 400, Kyle Busch's hopes in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup took a severe downturn when he blew an engine, forcing him from the field. On the radio, he told his pit crew that this ends his hopes of winning the series championship. It's been a difficult race for three of the Chase drivers. Besides Busch, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards might have seen their chances go down with early exits.
As races go at this Auto Club Speedway, Sunday's event was better than most with a lot of good racing. Heading into the final 50 miles there are several good storylines:
--Can Tony Stewart win for the first time at this track?
--Does Mark Martin have the horsepower to pull off a big upset?
--Can Clint Bowyer, 12th in the Chase standings, draw the field closer?
--And, of course, can Chase leader and four-time reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson do what he does so often -- win?
The top five, entering the final 50 miles were Bowyer, Martin, Stewart, Johnson and Ryan Newman.
On lap 137 of the Pepsi Max 400, there was actually a legit caution when Marcus Ambrose spun out and scattered debris across the Auto Club Speedway track. It was the second caution caused by Ambrose as he had a flat tire earlier in the race. Everyone used the latest caution to pit, but it was not in the window to allow it to be the final one of the race. There will be at least one more. The caution lasted for five laps.
Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon battled for half a lap on the restart but Bowyer semed to have the better car and claimed the lead.
On lap 145 came the sixth caution of the day when debris was spotted in turn one. About half the field came in for another stop, mostly opting to replace two tires. Bowyer and Gordon elected to stay out on the track. This caution lasted three laps.
On that restart, Bowyer again took the lead but Tony Stewart was able to pick up a few spots and on lap 149 took the lead from Bowyer.
At the 300-mile mark, Stewart had the lead, followed by Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson.
As anticipated, NASCAR spotted some mystery debris in turn 2 on lap 114, forcing the strung-out field in the Pepsi Max 400 to bunch up. Most of the drivers used it for a quick pit spot.
Among the better performances today has been David Reutimann, who started 23rd but worked his way into the top five. Tony Stewart was also having a good day, also making the top five at one point.
Remember Greg Biffle, who blew an engine early? He packed up his rig and has already left the Auto Clup Speedway.
Kyle Busch had to make two stops during the four-lap caution. A ventilator hose shook loose, taking him out of the top 10. However, he was quickly making up time, having gone from 28th to 20th in just a handful of laps.
At the 250-mile mark, the top five were Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. Denny Hamlin, who started last after changing his transmission before the race, has moved up to sixth.
Miles 150 to 200 were an example of the kind of boring racing that has been part of the Fontana track's trademark. The drivers started to get strung out over the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway track, meaning NASCAR will soon discover a piece of mystery debris on one of the turns so the field can be brought back together.
Mark Martin, who was likely to be Danica Patrick's racing coach in the near future, built almost a four-second lead. Martin is not in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup since he was 15th in the points standings entering the final 10 races of the season.
Carl Edwards, who had to go behind the wall with what was thought to be a fuel problem, didn't gain much ground after returning 15 laps down. The problem was eventually discovered to be a distrubutor.
Cars started to pit on the 95th lap, jumbling the lineup as the halfway point approached. At 200 miles, the top five were Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart.
The first 10 laps after the 100-mile mark of the Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway brought two cautions. The first on the 54th lap was because Marcos Ambrose had a flat tire. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the only one to not pit, giving him the lead, but not for long. It lasted for four laps.
On the 58th lap, Carl Edwards' car froze up and he needed a push to get going. It was believed to be a fuel problem and they were going to change the fuel pump and cable. He had to take his car back behind the wall. This was potentially devastating to Edwards' Chase for the Cup hopes. He was fourth, 53 points behind entering the race. Edwards came back out on the 72nd lap, 14 laps down.
One of the more remarkable rides of the race so far has been Denny Hamlin, second in the Chase standings. He started the race at the very back after replacing his transmission before the race and worked his way back up to 10th.
While there was a lot of jockeying among the Chase contenders, it was still points leader and four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson who was comfortably at the front or near it. On lap 74, however, he did give up the lead to Mark Martin. At 150 miles, the top five were Martin, Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman.
The first pit stop for the Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway came about lap 36 and Matt Kenseth came out of it still leading, followed by Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson. Juan Pablo Montoya was assessed a speeding penalty. Montoya earlier had scraped the wall, making this not one of his best days.
The first caution came on the 41st lap when Greg Biggle blew an engine. Biffle entered the race eighth in the Chase for the Cup standings and this will be a big blow to his hopes of at least holding position.
"Something broke in the bottom of the engine," Biffle said. "Don't really know what happened."
The temperature at the track is in the mid-90s and people were starting to wonder if the heat will play a factor in the race.
By the 43rd lap, when drivers came back in for another pit stop, 11 cars were either a lap down or out of the race. The caution will certainly bunch up the field and hopefully get the racing more competitive.
Racing resumed from the caution on lap 45 with David Gilliland getting the "Lucky Dog," meaning he gets a lap back.
The restart brought some exciting three-wide racing with Jeff Gordon wrestling the lead away. But it was short-lived as Johnson gained it back one lap later.
At the 100-mile mark, the top five were Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Mark Martin and Gordon.
The early race intrigue was on how Denny Hamlin, second in the Chase standings, would fare after being forced to the back of the field because he had to change his transmission. It was fifth time this year that Hamlin started at the back, with his highest finish being 24th. But he showed few problems knocking off 16 cars in the first 26 miles.
Jeff Gordon, who started 17th, also had a lot of pick up in the first few laps going from 17th to fifth by the 14th lap.
Meanwhile, pole-winner Jamie McMurray held on to his lead until the 16th lap when Matt Kenseth passed him to be the second leader of the 400-mile race.
The field was starting to get strung out and by the 22nd lap two cars had been lapped -- Kevin Conway and Landon Cassill.
After 50 miles, the top five racers were Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, McMurray, Elliott Sadler and Clint Bowyer.
It's not that anyone doesn't want Jimmie Johnson to do poorly in the Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. It's just his dominance at this track makes things pretty boring. Johnson has won at this track five times and the fact he's leading NASCAR's Chase for the Cup means this could be a long afternoon of strung out racing.
The Fontana track has had trouble keeping things interesting with essentially only one groove, which means not a lot of passing. The drivers like the track because they can maneuver all over the surface, sometimes leading to three-wide racing.
Johnson is starting eighth, alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR has had both an attendance and ratings slide this week and some speculate it is because of the lack of real personalities in the sport. Junior could change all that but his career has only been a shadow of his father's.
Come back here for updates as race time is upon us.
Photo: Tony Stewart, shown in the garage Saturday during practice, won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pepsi Max 400 on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontanta. Credit: Tom Pennington / Getty Images for NASCAR