Stewart wins, tightens Chase gap
by Matt Taliaferro
Three Chase races down, three top three runs for the defending four-time series champion. On a day that may have witnessed the official end of seven drivers’ title hopes, points leader Jimmie Johnson held a steady wheel in California, finishing third in the Pepsi Max 400 from Auto Club Speedway and extending his lead in the Chase standings.
While Johnson held form, one driver considered an afterthought in the Chase, Tony Stewart, charged to the point on a restart with 13 laps to go and held off Johnson and a hard-charging Clint Bowyer to score his second win of the season.
"I'll be honest, when I woke up this morning I thought if we had a top-10 day that was going to be good, and if we ran in the top 5 today that was going to be an outstanding day," Stewart said. "You know, it just shows how hard this guy [crew chief Darian Grubb] works. Some of the crew guys and I, we were out, we went to a sprint car race last night and went to a fair and rode rides last night, and I can tell where Darian was. He didn't go very far from his computer and from the engineers. I guarantee they were busy last night.
"He told me this morning he found something that he was confident was going to be quite a bit different and better than yesterday [during practice], and he for sure didn’t disappoint on that. It was a big key."
Stewart was 23rd fastest in Saturday’s final practice session, and admitted the weekend prior to being in an all-or-nothing mindset. The changes made by Grubb allowed the No. 14 team to scratch their way back into title contention, gaining 20 points on Johnson to sit fifth, 107 points out.
"We have the flexibility to just look forward and not worry about if we take a gamble and it doesn’t work," Stewart said. "We still have to be mindful of it, obviously, but the penalty for us isn’t that great when you’re 10th in points. You can take a chance [on setups or raceday strategy], and if it doesn’t work out, what are you losing, two spots?"
Aside from Stewart, only Bowyer gained ground on Johnson in the playoff standings. But, by his own admission, he is too far back to make a realistic charge. That leaves race trophies as his only motivation as the season winds down, and it appeared he may earn his second of the Chase. Bowyer’s No. 33 Chevy had pulled away from the field and was setting sail until a debris caution with 16 laps remaining bunched up the field.
Bowyer was livid over his in-car radio, claiming the debris had been sitting on the backstretch for the entire green flag run. Asked about it afterward, Bowyer said, "That’s a good question. I saw [debris] for a long time. You know, I mean, hell, it’s part of it. What do you say? I got one from Tony Stewart when he ran out of gas [at New Hampshire], and I felt like we had that race won until the caution came out, and he got one."
Denny Hamlin entered the Auto Club event only eight points behind Johnson, but lost 28 markers after finishing eighth. He now sits 36 points back.
Kevin Harvick made a valiant run through the field after qualifying 21st and then getting penalized for speeding on pit road before 80 of 200 laps transpired. He drove back to a solid seventh-place showing, but also lost ground to Johnson, dropping 24 points but holding onto third in the standings. He is still a manageable 54 points out of the Chase lead.
Jeff Gordon salvaged his title chances with a miraculous late-race rally that saw him charge from 24th to ninth in the final 15 laps. Like Harvick, Gordon was nabbed for speeding on pit road, but the damage appeared far more severe. Gordon was running comfortably inside the top 10 when the infraction occurred, and dropped him to 29th with just under 40 laps remaining. Taking advantage of two late-race cautions, Gordon’s crew put on fresh rubber, catapulting him past many cars on old tires. His sprint through the field kept him within 85 points of his teammate, Johnson.
Four drivers suffered catastrophic damage to their Chase hopes. Kurt Busch wrecked with seven laps remaining and finished 21st. Carl Edwards lost 14 laps due to a faulty distributor and concluded the day 34th. Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle suffered engine failures on the two-mile, high-speed, high-RPM Auto Club Speedway layout and finished 35th and 41st, respectively. These drivers, along with Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Bowyer, find themselves at least 140 out of the championship lead and likely done for the season.