Tony Stewart poses with the trophy after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race, Sunday, March 25, 2012, in Fontana, Calif. Stewart won the rain-shortened race. (AP Photo/Autostock, Nigel Kinrade)
FONTANA, Calif. — Tony Stewart got his second NASCAR victory of the season Sunday when rain shortened the race at Auto Club Speedway by 71 laps.
The defending Sprint Cup champion has won seven of the last 15 races in a remarkable stretch of dominance, including Las Vegas last month.
Stewart’s Chevrolet passed Kyle Busch 44 laps before the race was stopped when the looming rain clouds finally halted a race run entirely on green flags to that point. The race was called off after a short delay, giving Stewart his 46th career win and his second at Fontana.
Busch finished second, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. added to his strong start to the season in third.
“We had a great race car there from the start of the race,” said Busch, who started second alongside teammate Denny Hamlin and took the lead on the second lap. “We led a lot of laps. I just wish we led 30 more.”
Defending race winner Kevin Harvick was fourth, and Carl Edwards was fifth. Greg Biffle, Edwards’ Roush Fenway Racing teammate, finished sixth and kept a seven-point lead on Harvick atop the points standings.
With menacing clouds obscuring Mount Baldy to the north and threatening rain, the drivers realized they might not be able to get much past the halfway point necessary to make a race official. They mounted a fast, clean race that nearly set the track record for consecutive green-flag laps until the rain finally hit, eventually forcing a caution on the 125th lap.
“We all knew it was just going to be a matter of time,” Busch said. “So probably at Lap 60 or 70, we were thinking, ‘OK, we’re probably going to race to Lap 100.”’
The rain erased a potential disappointment for five-time Fontana champion Jimmie Johnson, who was 10th when the caution came out. He elected to pit, getting four tires and fuel — but moments later, his car started spitting smoke.
With no idea what was wrong with the car, crew chief Chad Knaus told Johnson to stay on the course to keep his position if the race was red-flagged. The strategy worked, and the five-time Sprint Cup champions extended their streak to 10 straight top-10 finishes on this track.
After hitting the wall late in last week’s race at Bristol, Stewart was back in top form. He won at Las Vegas with an aggressive move out of a restart, but the real racing at Fontana hadn’t even started before rain hit.
“We didn’t have an opportunity to do anything other than what we had planned from the start,” said Earnhardt, who has finished in the top 15 in all five races this season. “I like how our season is going so far. If we keep going like this, maybe we can get some opportunities ... and seal the deal.”
A weekend of perfect weather led to clear blue skies early Sunday morning, but the expected cloud cover rolled in within minutes of the start. The resulting drop in temperature threw off many teams’ calculations on air pressure and other decisions, forcing adjustments on their first pit stops.
The 2-mile Auto Club Speedway track is known for its bumpy, wide asphalt that puts a premium on driver skill and strategy, but also is more susceptible to temperature problems.