Tony Stewart continued his championship form Sunday with a win in the rain-shortened NASCAR Sprint Cup Auto Club 400.
Stewart gained the lead from Kyle Busch for the first time in the race on Lap 85. At that point and in clean air, no one could challenge Stewart in a race that featured the longest green-flag run -- 124 laps -- in track history.
He went on to take the victory in what turned out to be the closing laps as Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five.
For Stewart, it was his second win at Auto Club Speedway and his 46th career Cup win overall. It's also the first time in Stewart's career that the defending champ has won two Sprint Cup races this early in the season. His second victory, which came in the fifth race of the season, elevated Stewart three positions in the points standings to fourth.
He trails points leader Greg Biffle by 17 markers.
"It's been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have," Stewart said. "History shows in the last 13 years we have not had the strongest starts the first third of the year. I'm really, really excited about the start that we've got going.
"We've been strong everywhere we've been. Daytona was probably our weakest race, and I know I made decisions trying to make things happen, and (that) didn't work out, but it wasn't because our cars weren't good. We've had top-10 cars and top-five cars every race this year after that."
For Stewart, the qualifying effort this season has been stellar. He's started four of the five races in the top 10 and has led laps at every track except Bristol Motor Speedway. Stewart credits Hendrick Motorsports with providing stout engines and a flawless transition to electronic fuel injection, which NASCAR introduced in the Sprint Cup Series this season.
Still, it's difficult for even the strongest organizations to maintain the type of momentum Stewart-Haas Racing boasts at this time. Stewart believes his co-owner Gene Haas is responsible for pulling the pieces together.
"Gene has always given us the flexibility and the tools to do what we think needs to be done at the shop," Stewart said. "It's been a hard economic time, obviously, the last three or four years. Not once have we asked for anything and Gene said no. We don't take advantage of that. We don't look at it as an empty checkbook by any means. We definitely run it like a business and do the best we can to watch our budgets. But Gene has been awesome (in) letting us make changes when we felt like we needed to.
"There's been some key pieces that we've needed in the shop, and he's been behind it a hundred percent. That gives all of our guys the confidence that we're doing everything that we can to give ourselves the best opportunity to be successful."
One of those key additions was Steve Addington, who joined the championship organization as crew chief after last season. And Addington's learning curve with Stewart has been expedited from the assistance he's received from Stewart-Haas Racing director of competition Greg Zipadelli, also a newcomer at SHR.
However, for the first decade of Stewart's Sprint Cup career, Zipadelli led his No. 20 Home Depot team to two titles at Joe Gibbs Racing before Stewart jumped ship to SHR. Given Zippy's guidance and the overall strength of the team that Addington inherited, he's not surprised that the No. 14 crew picked up where it left off last season.
"They have been working their tails off and bringing great race cars to the racetrack, and I think we can keep doing this if we just keep our heads on straight and the communications are good," Addington said. "Tony is just awesome with feedback. It's none of this, 'You didn't do anything.' You make a change; he tells you whether it was good, bad, or whatever. He'll say you didn't fix what he was looking for, but he tells you what it did somewhere else on the racetrack.
"So, that makes life a lot easier to go back and sit and look at your notes and come in on Sunday morning with a game plan."
Stewart's 46th victory in 469 starts elevated him to a 14th-place tie with Buck Baker on the all-time win list. But he's well aware that his success wouldn't be possible without the support of his team and exceptional race cars.
On Sunday, Stewart had both.
And despite hitting middle age, Stewart shows no signs of slowing down -- at least not any time soon. That might be the most daunting threat to his competition.
"I'm definitely not," Stewart said. "I turned 40 last year, and I'm definitely not losing anything with age here."
Who's your weatherman? When rains came, second-place Denny Hamlin, along with Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, all elected to pit under the ensuing caution, which inevitably turned into a red-flag period and then the ultimate completion of the Auto Club 400.
Hamlin lost nine spots on the gamble. And although Johnson pitted, he was the first car off of pit road, and then his car developed engine issues under caution. The No. 48 team's risk was rewarded with a 10th-place finish. Certainly, had the race gone green, the outcome could have been dramatically different.
Other gainers included Kurt Busch, who scored a season-high ninth-place finish.
"We stayed on the lead lap all day and just long enough to salvage a top-10," Busch said. "Fifteenth was going to be what we came here for, then (we) got a great bonus when a bunch of the guys opted to pit at the end.
"We kept making the car better on pit stops. We were tight at the beginning and dropped down to 35th. Since we were the last car on the lead lap, we gambled on the rain and won. These guys are all pumped up, and so am I."
Pay the price Pit-road problems proved costly for two NASCAR Cup champions Sunday.
Jeff Gordon had a top-10 car through most of the race and relinquished the lead when the first miscue occurred with his No. 24 crew. Gordon left his pit on Lap 107 with the gas can -- and gasman -- still attached to the car. As his Chevrolet sped down pit road, his gasman spun like a top, and Gordon was penalized for removing equipment from his assigned pit area. NASCAR assessed the four-time champ a stop-and-go penalty on the next lap. Consequently, Gordon fell off the lead lap to 19th.
But Gordon's problems didn't stop there. When he opted to pit under caution, the No. 24 squad received a tire-violation penalty and was directed to the tail end of the lap-down cars. Gordon finished 26th -- his third result outside of the top 25 this season. He is 25th in the standings.
While Matt Kenseth's car wasn't nearly as stout as Gordon's, he, too, suffered from an infraction when a tire rolled across pit road on the final stop. Kenseth ran in the top 15 for most of the day and settled for 16th at the end.
"It wasn't very good," Kenseth said. "We just kind of gambled there pitting at the end hoping it would go back to green. But after the penalty that was pretty much it either way."
Numbers game 1: Caution -- the fewest on the two-mile track
16: Cars on the lead lap when the race was called
22: Races since Phoenix Racing's last top-10 finish - Kurt Busch finished ninth.
Say what? With the engine failing on the No. 48 Chevrolet as the race was red-flagged, crew chief Chad Knaus radioed: "I hate to say it, but pray for rain."