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Tony Stewart wins again, and again untouchable. But after all the buildup, Sunday's California 400 turned into a rain-shortened bust

  Not quite the victory lane Tony Stewart was figuring on, but then a win is a win is a win, rain or no (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    By Mike Mulhern


    FONTANA, Calif.
    For an event that should logically be one of the showcase events on the NASCAR stock car tour, Sunday's California 400 was pretty much a bust for the some 70,000 fans at this Los Angeles area track.
    Tony Stewart won again, adding Sunday's 400 to his Las Vegas victory two weeks ago. But it was the cold, drizzling rain, cutting short the race to just 258 miles, that was the dismal headliner at California's Auto Club Speedway.

    The day opened with bright, sunny skies, albeit with rain just off the coast. The threat of that rain set strategy, with teams trying to make it to lap 100, the halfway mark, which makes the race official.
    And the only yellow of the day was for the rain. The race was never restarted, and NASCAR officials called it a day at 2:23 p.m. PDT, even though the track has lights and sunset wasn't until 7:08 p.m. NASCAR called the crowd 90,000.
    There was precious little hot action on the track, with drivers generally strung out single file and well separated.
   But Stewart, calling his car "bad fast," easily took the lead at lap 85 of the scheduled 200-lapper, just when rain became an imminent threat, and he held it the rest of way, except for a routine round of green flag pit stops on lap 105.
    So Stewart, who turns 41 in May, certainly doesn't look over-the-hill. He's won seven of the Sprint Cup tour's last 15 races. And he's winning with awesome strength. 
   "I turned 40 last year and I’m definitely not losing anything with age," Stewart says with a laugh. "You hate to have them end with rain like that.  But I've lost some that way. 
    "The good thing is we didn't back into the lead because we stayed out and the leaders came in. We were leading the thing and had earned that spot."
    And how.


Gentleman, start your umbrellas (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Kyle Busch charged early and dominated for nearly an hour. Then Stewart took the point, and Busch, who finished second, said he didn't have enough speed to keep up with Stewart.
    "Once the track rubbered in, and every lane was good and black, our times fell off, but Tony's car was still digging," Busch said.
   Busch said the day was a rain game right from the start: "We all knew it was just a matter of time. By lap 60 or 70, we figured we'd be racing to lap 100, halfway.
   "That played into our pit strategy good. Everyone started short-pitting, so we came in early too, not to lose any time."
   Short-pitting, a good tactic when tires fall off as much over a run as these tires did, means drivers pit for fresh tires while they still have plenty of gas.
   In a curious move Denny Hamlin's crew chief Darian Grubb, when the rain brought out the only caution of the day on lap 125, ordered Hamlin to pit for tires and gas, while most of the field stayed on the track, expecting continued rain.
    At first blush Grubb's move didn't look good, since Hamlin gave up second place and wound up 11th.
    However Grubb was banking that a gamble for victory was worth it, reasoning that wins this season are more important than just points.
   After all Grubb and Stewart won the 2011 championship based on season wins, more than rival Carl Edwards.
   Hamlin and Grubb are among the 10 teams typically expected to make the playoff; 12 teams make the chase. Thus there is little risk for any of those 10 to thus gamble for a win. Hamlin lost nine points with the move; he stood to gain five on Stewart if the race were restarted and he won.


Before the rain, the track rubbered in well on Goodyear's new tires, and drivers could run three-wide....when they wanted to (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Stewart, Hamlin and Busch clearly had the best cars on the track.
    Still Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among those second-guessing Grubb and Hamlin: "I was surprised everyone didn't stay out. I was pretty certain that once it started raining it wasn't going to stop."
    The rain proved a big plus for Jimmie Johnson, whose car had just developed an odd oil leak moments before the yellow flag essentially ended the race.
    Johnson, smoking heavily as he followed the caution-flag field down pit road, was credited with 10th; and it was unclear if he could have continued racing, if the event went green again.
    "Either a piece of debris hit an oil line and knocked the fitting off or split the line, snagged a line," Johnson said. "I was just idling along and my friends pulled up alongside of me and were pointing 'You're smoking.'"
   Many, if not most, teams started the race hoping to race the looming rain to the halfway mark, 200 miles.
   Steve Addington, Stewart's crew chief, said "Tony and I talked before the race about racing to halfway, but Tony said he was figuring on the race going all 200 laps, so I told him that's what we'd do, and I'd keep him updated on the weather.
    "When we got 35 laps from halfway, I told Tony the situation with the weather, rain coming from three to five miles out. He was running Kyle down at the time.
   "We figured if it started raining, it wasn't going to stop."
   Busch led 160 miles until Stewart slipped by him in traffic. "I was trying too hard to catch back up to him, and I slipped and got in the fence," Busch said.
"We tore up a couple things on the back half of the car that are important to make it turn."
    So the rain was a plus? Busch said yes. "With our car right now, second is great."
   Hamlin agreed with Grubb's final pit stop:
   "I feel we took the safe move; the risky move was to stay out," Hamlin said. "If this goes back green, Tony is going to have to restart way in the back, and it's going to really hurt your chances of winning the race.
    "We were planning on the race going back green. 
     "You either give up a few spots, or you lose a chance to win."

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., third, continues his strong performance this season. He's now up to third in the standings, and his confidence is clearly growing.
    "Tony had an awesome car….and I thought Jimmie was pulling away from me steadily throughout the entire day," Earnhardt said. "But the track was going to tighten up, and we were prepared for that; that is something we have had problems with this year. 
   "We had great pit strategy too, stopping a little earlier than most people and gaining some track position.
   "I haven't run as good here as I would have liked to, but I love the track.  The multi-grooves are a lot of fun to run on.  It's definitely getting some age on it, but I think the asphalt will last a few more years." 
   One of the most disappointed was Greg Biffle, who had boasted coming into this event that his car was the best to ever come out of the Jack Roush Ford shop. But Biffle was not a strong competitor, finishing sixth. However he did hold on to the top spot in the Sprint Cup standings.
   "I like this track but the last few times here we've been off just a tick, and today I didn't keep up with the track," Biffle said.
    "If they had gotten the track cleaned off and going again, I think we would have had a chance, because we're good on a cold, green track.  When it gets hot and slick, we're not as good as they are."
    Teammate Carl Edwards finished just ahead of Biffle. Edwards left the track quickly without comment.
    Fellow teammate Matt Kenseth gambled at the end and lost, finishing 16th. Kenseth, usually one of the strong runners here, conceded it wasn't a good weekend, and his poor qualifying run Friday didn't help.
    "We gambled pitting at the end, hoping it would go back green," Kenseth said. "But after the penalty (for a tire violation) that was pretty much it
either way. 
    "We ran 13th to 16th the whole day. We just missed it.  I thought we would be pretty good and we never really were that great."


    Smoke usually isn't a good thing, but Jimmie Johnson, here with an unexplained oil leak, lucked out (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Talk about a track that NEEDS

Talk about a track that NEEDS a makeover...this is it. I have to assume that all the racing 'purists' who scoff at those fans who long for the 'old' Bristol must have been wallowing in glory over the race at his very wide, multiple groove track with plenty of room to pass, and no time wasted running multiple cautions. If Nascar has started out on track like this they would never have sold out even Martinsville.

i agree fully. i have been

i agree fully. i have been pushing for nascar/isc to do something here for several years. speeds are too high for the flat 14 degree corners. and the track now is incredibly bumpy. gillian should do like bruton smith -- 'i don't care what the drivers say, i'm going to fix this track and give the fans a show.' i find it disconcerting that gillian has not been able to throw her weight around and get something dramatic done; she's been rejected by drivers and nascar executives, for some reason, and she needs to make the case directly to jim france and lesa france kennedy that this track needs to be redesigned into some that will excite the fans. or maybe the france family should just sell this track to bruton smith and let him make the changes needed.

The only change the track

The only change the track needs is make it a restrictor plate track - bank the entirety of the corners higher. It also needs smoothed-out pavement.

I kept waiting for the

I kept waiting for the "mystery" debris cautions but went to sleep......

imho these drivers were just

imho these drivers were just running to the halfway mark so they could get home. no real racing, just follow the leader, and dont bring out any cautions. that stinks. real racers race. i was very disappointed in what i saw from most of these 43 sunday.

I get more disappointed each

I get more disappointed each race but am hopeful the talk about tire compounds may lead to some "safe" changes to enhance the racing experience. While the drivers may have had fun today, I was bored to sleep. It does look like Smoke is carrying on the momentum from last season but that is about the only "story" that is consistent other than the boring racing. Keep the faith and maybe we'll get rid of these IROC race cars.....Thanks for the great posts.

After attending Cup races

After attending Cup races (and several Nationwide & Truck Series races) at Fontana since 2005, the wife and I decided to watch the single file parade from home and couldn't have been happier. Now if there was a 3/4 mile high bank track in Fontana instead of the sleep inducing two miler currently there, maybe we'd have been at the track.

I thought the race would be a

I thought the race would be a little more exciting as a sprint race to lap 100 (with the weather conditions and a tighter, grippy track), but what are you gonna do when Kyle Busch rides on rails like he did for the first 80 something laps. I don't think he even lost the lead, while pitting under the green. That's ol' school racin'! The Hendrick motors were very strong from 14, 24, 39, 48, 88 and the 5 car just struggled. They clearly were near the top of the board, top 10 all day. Smoke's handling package out did them all walking them down at will in the end. Had Jeff Gordon didn't have problems on pit road, the race could have been entirely different as he was just as fast as Smoke at one point. And talk about luck. JJ blew the engine as the rain fell getting him 35 points. Imagine if it would have happened early in the race or no rain? He'd be near the bottom of the board getting at least 7 points for the Chase run. If Bruton gets this track, with the amount of seats he has to work with, the stands would be full! Yesterday was my first race at Fontana and I did notice a couple of things. Food prices were relatively low, compare to other stick and ball stadium prices. Souvenir programs were $10! Good seats were cheap! I paid $35 each for two tickets. Sat far enough up (near turn one) to see the backstretch and partial turns 3 & 4. They need to move that scoreboard somewhere or create another smaller, compact version that tell you what you need to know but yet not an eyesore. I know when Penske created this track, initially for Indy/CART racers, giving the scoreboard that "Indy" feeling like the scoreboard there. NASCAR/TV needs to start TV blackouts (if possible with Cable TV packages) from at least a 100 mile radius of the track. No matter how "broke" people claim to be, some things you have to plan and sacrifice for just like anything else because with the NASCAR interactive experience online, TIVO, DVR and with Cable TV, why even bother to leave the comforts of home? Have your cake and eat it too.

Socal race fan here and have

Socal race fan here and have been to every race here except the first 3 of 1997 to 1999 and the race in 2001. So that's every race for the last 11 years and 12 of the last 13 years. Been to many other races all across the country since 2002 as well and of course the racing isn't always scintillating here at Auto Club Speedway. However, I love racing and no matter what I will be at the race here every year unless I am either dead or infirmed. I told my buddy, while on the way to the race, that with the rain supposed to be at the track by 2pm at the latest, there was no way NASCAR was going to throw a caution for mystery debris or any kind of debris until this race was at lap 100. You know that there was no way NASCAR or the teams wanted to have to come back on Monday and I surely don't blame them, as they had that long drive back to North Carolina. I did believe that they would throw a caution for debris after all the cars completed a green flag pit stop cycle after lap 100 and was surprised when they didn't. Just my opinion, but if this had been a sun-soaked day with no chance of rain, then there's absolutely NO chance that the race would have stayed caution free as long as it did. NASCAR simply no longer officiates the races as they used to and that's the possibility of a race without a single caution. Amazingly, we are approaching 10 years since the last NASCAR race without a caution and that was the Talladega race on October 6th, 2002. I, for one, was quite happy to see the race clean and green until the rains came. No one had spun or crashed or oiled the track, so there was simply no need for any cautions up until that point. Jeff

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