By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
Races at Auto Club Speedway have been thrown into the category of “snoozers” over the years, but Sunday’s Pepsi Max 400 had it all.
There were 24 lead changes between 14 drivers, the agony of defeat from numerous Chasers, and in the end Tony Stewart was standing in victory lane after holding off Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson in a two-lap-shootout.
This was the first 400-mile event at a track that will no longer host a race in the Chase next season, and I think everyone will agree that the idea to reduce the distance of this race was a home run.
For Tony Stewart, this win marks his second of the season, and 39th of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. According to ‘Smoke’ he was going into this race only hoping for a top-ten finish.
“Awesome day, obviously. 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.
He would continue by giving credit to his crew chief for his hard work in getting the car dialed in.
“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,” Stewart said. “He told me this morning he found something that he was confident was going to be quite a bit different and better than yesterday, and he for sure didn’t disappoint on that. It was a big key.”
With his victory, Stewart moves five spots in the right direction in the Chase standings to fifth. With six races remaining he now sits 107 points behind the points leader.
By virtue of the strong runs of Stewart, Bowyer and Johnson, Chevrolet locked up another Manufacturer’s championship. Second-place finisher Clint Bowyer spoke about how proud he is to drive a bow-tie.
“Yeah, I’ve always been proud to drive a Chevrolet. It’s the only thing I’ve ever driven basically since I was 16 years old. So that’s just an awesome thing to be a part of,” Bowyer said.
Bowyer would continue by breaking down his run, “But The Hartford Chevrolet was good, had a good day all day long. I really was worried that this was going to be a major struggle being without my crew chief, but Scott Miller and everybody filled in well, and I think it speaks volumes about Shane’s preparation back at the shop. It was a good race. We were strong. I passed Jimmie Johnson on the last lap, and it felt really good.”
In finishing third Jimmie Johnson holds on to his point lead, and it grows from eight points at the start of the day to 40 over Denny Hamlin heading into next week at Charlotte. Johnson explained, that had the race gone green all the way down the last 40-laps of the race, we may have seen a different winner.
Our race today was kind of up and down, led some, ran fifth and sixth some and just kind of worked on the car and towards the end of the race got things going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “I think if it stayed green I was really taking a lot — I was taking big chunks off of Tony’s lead right before that caution came out. If it stayed green, I think there would have been a good race for the win.”
Kasey Kahne came home fourth and apparently he hasn’t felt like a race car driver lately, with the way his cars have been driving.
“All of the guys on my Budweiser Ford Fusion did a nice job. We made some gains and it was actually nice. I felt like a driver again, so it was kind of cool,” Kahne said.
Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five finishers.
Mark Martin was gushing about his car on qualifying day, saying that it was a car that could win the race. The 51-year-old led the most laps on the day with 41 and finished sixth on the day.
Regan Smith came away with an impressive 12th-place finish after his team gambled to take just two tires on their last pit stop. The gamble paid off huge, and they got a great finish for the No. 78 FarmAmerican.com Chevrolet.
Jamie McMurray led the first 14 laps of the race from the pole, but he would wind up 17th, one spot behind a driver that celebrated his 36th birthday today.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the birthday boy, but he may not be too happy. He started from the ninth spot, and looked like he had an okay car early on, but an odd call by crew chief Lance McGrew to not pit under a caution, sent the team sliding back through the field in the mid-stages of the race.
Now obviously ‘Chasers’ swept the top-three positions in this race, but just about the rest of the drivers fighting for the title had issues in California. In all seven of the twelve Chasers had misfortunes of some kind throughout the day.
The first of the nine cautions came out when Greg Biffle’s motor blew. After his Ford FR9 engine let go, Biffle who was in the thick of the Chase For The Championship, tried to explain what happened.
“well I’m not sure, the guys have been working really hard on our durability,” Biffle said. “Something broke in the bottom end of the engine, you know because it (smoke) came out of the bottom.”
Biffle, who was on top of the world last week by winning in Kansas, would end up in 41st when all was said and done Sunday.
A dejected Biffle continued by saying, “This was our opportunity to get back in the Chase, and you know doesn’t look like that will happen.”
On lap 58 Carl Edwards’ day went south, as his car just stopped in turn four. He wouldn’t be able to get the car re-fired and would take a disappointing push from the tow-truck to the garage. Edwards would finish the day 14 laps down in 34th. After the race, Edwards didn’t concede his shot at the title just yet.
“It’s definitely out of my control, but my guys build great engines. Like I said, there are so many moving parts in a race car. You’ve got to run well enough to absorb these kind of days,” Edwards said. “We’ve run really well. We’ve got six races left and we’re 162 points back, so over six races that’s not a lot of points per race, so I think we can do it. We just have to keep digging.”
At this point two of the three Roush-Fenway cars that were in the Chase have had failures, and everyone was wondering if perhaps Matt Kenseth, who led 29 laps early was next.
However it was Kevin Harvick who would be the next Chaser to shoot himself in the foot. On lap 97 he was busted for speeding on pitroad, which sent him from a promising top-ten run all the way back to 27th. Harvick would fight back all day long, and actually rebounded to finish seventh.
Kyle Busch was distraught after contact with David Reutimann in Kansas ruined a great run for him, and with 46 laps remaining the engine in his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry expired. Busch who is known to wear his emotions on his sleeve said, “On to another year,” after climbing from his car.
Busch would wind up 35th, and now sits 187 points behind point leader Jimmie Johnson.
Under the caution for Kyle Busch’s motor problems, Jeff Gordon was clocked going too fast down pit road. Gordon had been running inside the top-five and top-ten all day long, but was sent back to 26th with just 44 laps remaining.
Gordon didn’t look like he was going to be able to rebound, as he was struggling deep in the pack, but a call by Steve Letarte to get four tires under the last caution saved the day. Gordon would finish ninth.
With seven laps to go it was another Chaser in trouble. This time it was Kurt Busch, who was slammed into the wall when David Ragan cut him off in turn four. The contact was very severe and led to a disappointing 21st-place finish for the elder of the Busch brothers.
Finally with two laps to go Matt Kenseth was the final Chaser to have issues, as his engine did all but expire. Kenseth had to limp around for the final two laps to finish 30th. Following the race Kenseth said that he held on for all he could at the end.
“Jimmy and Chip made some good adjustments and really brought the car to life two or three runs from the end, but on the second-to-last restart I could feel the engine wasn’t running right,” Kenseth said. “I had something wounded that was getting ready to break, so I just held on to what we could.”
Coming into the day eight drivers were within 100 points of Jimmie Johnson, but after Sunday only Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Gordon are less than 100 markers from the man who is going for five-straight championships.