Stewart snaps California jinx

Johnson remains on cruise control

Tony Stewart rang up another Sprint Cup victory yesterday and moved up five spots to fifth in the Chase standings. Tony Stewart rang up another Sprint Cup victory yesterday and moved up five spots to fifth in the Chase standings. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
By John Marshall
Associated Press / October 11, 2010

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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 yesterday 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 Denny Hamlin with six Chase 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 22d, 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 he 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 times for 40 laps. He dropped back late, but made another charge, passing Johnson on the last lap.

“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 finished seventh and remains 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.