Race Weekend Central

Stewart Scores a Rain-Shortened Fontana Victory (Contains top-12/35 as well)

NASCAR’s made two trips out to the Western United States for intermediate races this season. Tony Stewart is basically perfect so far in those events.

However, the race was a Joe Gibbs Racing benefit early on. Denny Hamlin won the pole and dominated practice. However, once the race started, Kyle Busch came to the forefront. He passed Hamlin on the second lap of the race for the lead and pulled away.

Unfortunately, the big story of Sunday’s race wasn’t even the action on track. All weekend, meterologists were forecasting a 100 percent chance of rain for Sunday afternoon. Luckily, the rains held off long enough for NASCAR to start the event a little early. Regardless, racing against the rain set a tone for the race. Drive as fast as you can, but as carefully as you can.

Busch held onto the lead through the first two rounds of pit stops, all the while lapping well up into the midfield. However, on Lap 84, Busch caught Juan Pablo Montoya, who was running in 21st, last driver on the lead lap. Montoya raced Busch to stay on the lead lap quite hard, holding the No. 18 at bay. Eventually, Busch had to back off a little to preserve his tires.

This allowed Stewart to run down Busch from a second and a half behind. At the end of Lap 85, Stewart made his move on the outside of Busch exiting Turn 4. He was able to complete the pass entering Turn 1 and quickly dispatched the pesky Montoya as well. From there, Stewart quickly pulled away and held his advantage through a round of pit stops.

When the rains finally came on Lap 125, bringing out the first and only yellow of the race, Stewart executed a fake out on much of the rest of the drivers on the lead lap when pit road opened. Staying out allowed Stewart to maintain his lead. A couple of laps later, NASCAR “lost the track” and pulled the field onto pit road. After a conference of officials and some cursory attempts to dry the track, it was determined that the rains were likely to stick around for a while, making it impossible to dry the track and restart in a timely manner. With the race already past the halfway point, it was thus declared to be an official race and Stewart was declared the winner.

For Stewart, it is his second victory of 2012 and the seventh since the beginning of the Chase last season. After the race, he was very happy with his day.

“Our car drove really, really well in traffic. Felt like it was real maneuverable as far as being able to move to different spots on the racetrack than other guys were at,” Stewart said. “Steve did an awesome job all day of the changes that he made. Every time he changed something, the car really responded well to it. That’s when you know you have a real good racecar under you, when you make little changes and it makes a big difference. He did an awesome job. Each run we got better and better and better.”

Second-place Kyle Busch was happy with his result, but wishing that he had more time.

“We had a great racecar there from the beginning of the race,” Busch said in the post-race press conference. “Glad we were able to run that way and up front like we’re supposed to and to our potential, that we had a day where we didn’t have attrition or something else get in our way. I just wish we led 30 more [laps] and we’d be in a different position right now.”

Behind Stewart and Kyle Busch was Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in third. Kevin Harvick finished fourth, while Carl Edwards rounded out the top-5. Points leader Greg Biffle was sixth, followed by Ryan Newman. Martin Truex, Jr. was eighth, followed by Kurt Busch in the Phoenix Chevrolet. Jimmie Johnson, who was the first driver off of pit road under the race’s only caution, rounded out the top-10.

For Johnson, having the rains force an early end to the proceedings was the only way that he could have legitimately finished well on Sunday. After leaving pit road under caution, Johnson’s No. 48 began smoking heavily due to an oil leak. With the rain falling and the radar looking quite ugly, crew chief Chad Knaus chose to leave Johnson out on track. This turned out to be a good decision.

Next weekend, the Sprint Cup Series returns to action at the paper clip, Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. Coverage starts Sunday afternoon at 12:30pm EDT.

Point Standings

Greg Biffle had a very quiet day on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. However, these days, even quiet days result in great finishes. Biffle’s sixth-place finish put him in position to potentially expand his point lead. However, Kevin Harvick had an even better day, carrying the Jimmy John’s Chevrolet to a fourth-place finish. The result is that Harvick reduced Biffle’s lead from nine to seven.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran well Sunday, spending most of the race in the top-10. Choosing not to pit under the race’s one and only caution allowed him to finish in third. This moved him up three spots to third in the points, 17 out of the lead. Just one point behind Earnhardt, Jr. is race winner Tony Stewart. Stewart flexed his muscle once again. Do not doubt Stewart under any circumstances. Martin Truex, Jr. dropped one place to fifth in the standings, but not because he had a bad run. Truex still earned another top-10 finish on Saturday.

Matt Kenseth dropped three places to sixth in points after choosing to pit under the only yellow of the race. He ended up 16th, the last car on the lead lap. Denny Hamlin moved down two places to seventh after dominating most of the weekend leading up to the race, but only leading two laps all day on Sunday before finishing 11th. Clint Bowyer remains in eighth after an anonymous run to 13th.

Jimmie Johnson’s victory in last week’s final appeal moved him from 17th to 11th in points. Sunday, Johnson got lucky thanks to the rain. He ran well all day, but during the caution, his Lowe’s/Jimmie Johnson Foundation Chevrolet started leaking oil and smoking. Had the race been able to restart, Johnson would have been in a heap of trouble. However, with the rain in play, Johnson stayed on track until the field was stopped and kept a tenth-place finish, which moved him up two places to ninth in points. Ryan Newman re-enters the top-10 after a seventh-place finish.

Just outside of the top-10 are Paul Menard, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano. Logano, winner of the Royal Purple 300 on Saturday for the Nationwide Series, fell out of the top-10 in points after finishing 24th Sunday.

Standings: 1) Greg Biffle 195, 2) Kevin Harvick -7, 3) Dale Earnhardt, Jr. -17, 4) Tony Stewart -18, 5) Martin Truex, Jr. -20, 6) Matt Kenseth -22, 7) Denny Hamlin -24, 8) Clint Bowyer -38, 9) Jimmie Johnson -39, 10) Ryan Newman -40, 11) Paul Menard -47, t-12) Carl Edwards -49, t-12) Joey Logano -49

Wild Cards: Brad Keselowski (16th in points, one win), Paul Menard (11th in points)

Race Winners: Matt Kenseth (Daytona), Denny Hamlin (Phoenix), Tony Stewart (Las Vegas, Fontana), Brad Keselowski (Bristol)

Tracking the Top 35: Time for 2012 Points to come into play

Sunday was the last opportunity for teams to either race their way into the top-35 in owners’ points, or (at least temporarily) lock down their existing places in the top-35. Ultimately, only one team (other than FAS Lane Racing’s No. 32, since that team is a special case) that was on the outside looking in back at Daytona was able to lock themselves into Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 in Martinsville.

That team was the No. 36 for Tommy Baldwin Racing and driver Dave Blaney. Blaney has finishes of 15th, 23rd, 29th, 34th and 33rd in the first five races of the season. That was ultimately enough to lock the No. 36 into the top-35 in 28th position.

The only reason why Blaney had to qualify on speed is that the team switched their owners points from last year in order to lock in the new No. 10 that the team is splitting between David Reutimann (for normal weekends) and Danica Patrick (for those weekends in which Stewart-Haas Racing is operating the car). After Patrick was involved in a Lap 2 crash in Daytona and Reutimann blew an engine in Phoenix, it was an uphill battle to keep the No. 10 locked into the field. However, Reutimann has kept the car clean the last three weeks and shown improved form. That was enough to lock the No. 10 into the top-35, but only tenuously. They are only five points ahead of 36th.

The only team locked in at the beginning of the season that will have to qualify on speed this weekend in Martinsville is BK Racing’s No. 83 and driver Landon Cassill. Generally, Cassill’s No. 83 has been the faster of the two Burger King Toyotas this season. However, problems have hampered Cassill’s efforts. A blown engine in Las Vegas resulted in a 36th-place finish. Yesterday saw Cassill record another 36th-place finish due to the car having issues under the hood right before the rains came.

Here’s your owners point standings near the all-important cutoff.

29) Germain Racing (No. 13 – Casey Mears), 19 points ahead of 36th.
t-30) BK Racing (No. 93 – Travis Kvapil), 18 points ahead of 36th.
t-30) FAS Lane Racing (No. 32 – Ken Schrader), 18 points ahead of 36th.
t-30) Front Row Motorsports (No. 38 – David Gilliland), 18 points ahead of 36th.
33) Front Row Motorsports (No. 34 – David Ragan), 17 points ahead of 36th.
t-34) Tommy Baldwin Racing/Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 10 – David Reutimann), 5 points ahead of 36th.
t-34) Richard Childress Racing (No. 33 – Brendan Gaughan), 5 points ahead of 36th.
36) BK Racing (No. 83 – Landon Cassill), 5 points behind 35th.
37) Inception Motorsports (No. 30 – David Stremme), 18 points behind 35th.
38) Wood Brothers Racing (No. 21 – Trevor Bayne), 23 points behind 35th.
39) Front Row Motorsports (No. 26 – Josh Wise), 24 points behind 35th.

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