Stewart, Johnson emerge


FONTANA, Calif. -- "Smoke" finally got his win in California. Jimmie Johnson could be ready to smoke the field again.

Tony Stewart pulled away from Johnson on a late restart Sunday to win at Auto Club Speedway for the first time in 19 tries, but it was the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion who walked away with a bigger points lead.

Johnson finished third in the Pepsi Max 400 after a late pass by Clint Bowyer and has a 36-point lead over second-place Denny Hamlin with six Chase races left.

"Great day overall," Johnson said. "We certainly wanted to be in Victory Lane, but if we 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.

Stewart had a good showing on Oct. 3 at Kansas, finishing fourth, but still entered Sunday 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 race that served as the last fall date at Fontana. He was fifth by the 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're 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 times for 40 laps.

Bowyer 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 because of 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.

Engine troubles dented the chances of Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth finished a disappointing 30th. A late crash thwarted Kurt Busch, and he 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.

Johnson had made his now-expected surge to the top of the Chase standings, using a win at Dover and a second last week at Kansas after a poor qualifying session to move past Hamlin.

This one has a 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.

Drivers not in the Chase nabbed five of the grid's first six spots, and only Kenseth (third) and Biffle (seventh) were in the top 10.

Way behind them were Chase drivers Harvick (21st), Stewart (22nd), Hamlin (34th) and Kurt Busch (38th), who had a lot of chasing to do, which they did.

By lap 90, seven of the top eight cars were drivers vying for the the championship.

Johnson was among the movers, up to fifth in the first three laps, second after 19 and into the lead on lap 47, even after dealing with debris on his front grille that pushed his engine temperature near 300 degrees.

He stayed out front for a while, had his car fade to 10th and then starting working his way back to the front again.

Johnson moved into second by passing Kasey Kahne with nine laps left but didn't have enough to keep up with Stewart on the restart or to hold off Bowyer.

No victory, not even a second-place finish, yet Johnson still built on his points lead.

"We as a team have tried to be smart about things and have the company motto to be in the top five," Johnson said. "The whole thought process of being in the top five was just to kind of have everybody stay calm and in control."

After this race, they are -- again in control.

 

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