Tony Stewart rode aggressive driving early and a later-than-expected gift from Mother Nature to win the NASCAR Auto Club 400 at Fontana, Calif., on Sunday. The race was called with 71 laps to go due to rain.
It was the second win of the season for Stewart, making the 2011 Sprint Cup series champion the first repeat winner of 2012. Kyle Busch was second, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards.
With rain threatening the area before the race even got going, aggressive driving, particularly through turns on the resealed surface in Fontana, was popular in the early laps. Drivers, perhaps positioning themselves for a run at the lead at Lap 101 with rain threatening to shorten the race, were making aggressive moves and pushing the speed gun traveling through pit road (with numerous drivers penalized for speeding).
And Stewart was perhaps most aggressive, often diving low into turns to attempt to a pass with very little room, then sliding back up the track out of the turn to get in front of the car. It did not sit well with some drivers, but it worked for the 2011 Sprint Cup champ, who took the lead over from Kyle Busch at Lap 86 and never relented other than during green-flag stops.
On that Lap 86, Busch, who started second and took command on Lap 2, was simultaneously trying to pass and lap Juan Pablo Montoya and hold off a charging Stewart. Montoya, in 21st place and fighting to stay on the lead lap, fought off the charging Busch long enough for Stewart to catch up on Busch, and reel him in while Montoya stayed ahead of both drivers as the lead changed hands.
The race's first caution came with 76 laps to go and Stewart in the lead. As the pace car neared pit road, Stewart faked going to the pits and Denny Hamlin appeared to bite despite running second, committing to making his stop while Stewart stayed out on the track.
Hamlin, the pole-sitter, led Lap 1 before being overtaken by Busch.
Busch was fast from the get-go -- and so was his pit crew. Holding a lead of half a second on Hamlin when both drivers made their first pit stops under green on Lap 36, Busch got back onto the track three seconds in front of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate.
When drivers went in for their second round of green-flag stops, Jimmie Johnson stayed out the longest, holding the lead as he pitted on Lap 71. But as the stops cycled through, Busch, who pitted on Lap 68, resumed his customary spot at the top of the leaderboard.
One of the losers on the second round of stops was Jamie McMurray, who had to re-pit when he came out of his stop missing a lug nut. Others who were penalized on pit road included Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski, last week's winner at Bristol.