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And the NASCAR title chase is suddenly down to four. Or five, if winner Tony Stewart can keep rolling

 To the winner goes the champagne, and Tony Stewart douses everyone (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   FONTANA, Calif.

   Tony Stewart couldn't escape the media this time. Sunday's late-race charge to victory, his second of the season, put him front-and-center after the California Pepsi 400...on a bad day for many of the NASCAR championship chase racers.
   Now can Stewart and crew chief Darien Grubb make up those 107 points on tour leader Jimmie Johnson somewhere along the line these next few races?

   Stewart, the last man to win the NASCAR title before Johnson's four-in-a-row,  picked up 20 on the four-time champ. And he praised his pit crew: "They did an unbelievable job, that got us an opportunity again.
    "Both races we have won, we have won because the pit crew gave us a chance."
    Of course Stewart's pit crew wouldn't have had that opportunity if not for a late-race caution for debris, which came while Clint Bowyer was holding a comfortable lead of more than a second.
   A debris yellow? Well, those have been controversial this season, and complaining about some of them cost Denny Hamlin a $50,000 secret NASCAR fine.
   But Bowyer, whose own win at Loudon, N.H., a few weeks ago to open the chase, was not without controversy either – Bowyer was hit with a championship-killing 150-point fine.
   And Bowyer wasn't a bit happy with Sunday's yellow that he felt cost him this win: "After the last two weeks we had, I'm frustrated. I want to redeem myself. 
    "We're a race-winning team, and we need to go out and prove that last one wasn't a hoax."
    Bowyer called Sunday's crucial yellow, on lap 184 of the 200-lapper, "that mystery caution.
    "That piece of debris was out there the whole run. 
     "It's a shame...but I guess it made a better race out of it."
    NASCAR, which has taken Bowyer's race car back to Charlotte for more lengthy post-race inspections the past several weeks, this time took his engine back for major teardown.

   Jamie McMurray (1) and Elliott Sadler at the head of the pack for the noon West Coast start (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   On the final restart, with two laps to go, after the Kurt Busch-David Ragan crash on the frontstretch, Stewart and Bowyer were side-by-side.
   "I knew the restart was going to be critical, and if I could get through one and two and still have the lead off two, then I would have a shot at it," Stewart said.
    "We got a good restart, picking the top (lane). And good thing Clint Bowyer was there to keep Jimmie honest and keep him busy. That let us do our own thing the last lap and run our lines."
    Stewart says he's carrying an 'all or nothing' attitude at the moment, after starting playoffs with that unexpected gas mileage gamble that wildly backfired at Loudon, N.H., in the opener three weeks ago.
   "We've been fast in three of the four chase races, so I definitely think we're still in this thing," Stewart said. "Dover (two weeks ago) was the only place where we struggled."
   Denny Hamlin, second in the standings heading to Charlotte, had to start the race from the rear of the field for making a pre-race transmission change. But he said that wasn't a major downer: "It wasn't something we couldn't overcome.  We were in the top-10 by lap 50 or 60.  (But) the next 150 laps we only gained two spots."
   Of course with as much hot action as this race produced – five-wide at some points – Hamlin was trying to be cautious: "It was wild.  You're in a position where a lot of guys are racing extremely hard -- the guys that are just racing for nothing. 
    "So you don't know how to approach racing some guys. It's pretty much every man for himself out there."


   Ouch! This isn't going to be pretty. Bad day for the Busch brothers, Kurt here (2) tangled with David Ragan in some of that no-holds-barred action (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Catching momentum? Well, momentum this season has been fleeting, for just about every driver on the tour. Hot and cold....even Johnson.
   Consider Greg Biffle. Just a week after his Kansas comeback, Biffle was one of the first out of this 400, with a blown engine just 80 miles into the race.
   "We were trying hard to win the title, and it isn't going to happen this year," Biffle said.
   "It's disappointing, but what can you do?  It broke.  Everybody is giving this program 110 percent, so you can't blame anybody. 
   "The engine just let go at the end of the backstretch.  I let up on the throttle going in the corner, and it broke. It probably broke a rod.
    "It's unfortunate for us. This was our opportunity to get back in the chase, and it doesn't look like it's going to happen."
    Teammate Carl Edwards too. Just a week after that strong run at Kansas, Edwards also had unexpected engine problems, losing 14 laps behind the wall while his crew replaced the fuel fuel pump, fuel cables and distributor. He returned to the track, but a 34th place finish puts him in a deep hole too.
   The pain was clear in Edwards' voice: "That's a really tough day.....
   "We had a great car. It was something in the ignition; the rotor is what they said, in the distributor."
   And now? "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."
   Third teammate Matt Kenseth, strong at Kansas, was strong again here, until, worried at the end, he backed off: "I could feel the engine wasn't running
right.  I had something wounded that was getting ready to break. So I just held on to what we could."
    That turn of events, Kenseth says, "probably took all three of us out for a legitimate shot (at the title) n one race. So that's really disappointing.
    "But I've already made my mistakes and had us in a hole anyway. We certainly couldn't afford any bad finishes.
    "You know you're not going to be able to win it now from where we're at, barring a miracle."

    And consider Kyle Busch. One of this sport's best pure racers, Busch, a week after that controversial crash at Kansas, this time blew an engine and finished 35th.
   That, Busch said, put an end to his championship bid. He is now 187 points down to Johnson.
   "There was a weird 'Pop!' off turn two one time when I got to the throttle wide open, and it blew the back of the hood seal between the hood and the cowl," he said. "I don't know what happened.  But I said 'Well, that didn't sound too good.  I'm not sure if it's going to make it the rest of the race.'
    "It didn't. 
     "We'd finally got some adjustment in the car and it was heading back towards the front, and it just blew up.
     "On to another year.  It's over."



Don't think this is victory lane where Dr. Jerry Punch is interviewing Kyle Busch. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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