Commentary

Tony Stewart unstoppable at Cali

Updated: March 25, 2012, 10:15 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- Rain or shine, new crew chief or old one, Tony Stewart is doing everything right.

Smoke is making all the right moves on the track and all the right calls when it means the most. He won his second Sprint Cup race in five outings this season by outrunning, outhustling and outsmarting everyone else Sunday.

With 20 laps to go until halfway and rain closing in, Stewart decided it was go time. Kyle Busch had the show to himself for 80 of the first 85 laps until the No. 14 Chevy went barreling by him.

"Everybody was hoping we could get to the halfway mark," Stewart said in a postrace TV interview. "But this car was bad fast. Whether we got more rain or went back green, I was happy with my car."

[+] EnlargeTony Stewart
Chris Graythen/Getty Images/NASCARTony Stewart now has won seven of the past 15 NASCAR Sprint Cup races dating back to 2011.

On a normal sunny day in Southern California, getting passed for the lead before halfway is no big deal, with plenty of time for Busch to get back to the front.

This was not a normal day in SoCal. By the time Stewart made his move, Auto Club Speedway looked and felt like a sleepy Seattle day when the clouds roll in off Puget Sound.

Stewart needed to be in front at Lap 100, halfway through the scheduled 200-lap event. He made it with 15 laps to spare and stayed there until the end, thanks to a wise fake-job decision to stay out of the pits when the caution flew as the raindrops fell.

Stewart started slowly toward pit road, but jerked the steering wheel to the right at the last second, like a Walter Payton head fake in the open field.

Denny Hamlin, who was second, appeared to take the bait.

"I don't think I faked him out," Stewart said. "It looked good, though."

Hamlin turned toward the pits when Stewart did, but stayed his course and came down pit road, as did Jimmie Johnson. Hamlin said he wasn't fooled. The No. 11 Toyota team was coming in no matter what Stewart did.

"This is strategy you make," Hamlin said in a TV interview. "We were planning on the race going back green. Otherwise, you lose a chance to win in the grand scheme of things."

What he lost was nine spots in the box score when NASCAR called it official after 129 laps, the first rain-shortened finish ever on the 2-mile Fontana oval. Hamlin finished 11th.

Johnson finished 10th, but the rain was his friend. He cracked an oil line under caution, and the red flag saved him from a much worse fate.

"I really don't know what caused it," Johnson said on a TV interview. "I guess some debris hit an oil line and snagged it. It's like we ruptured an artery and were losing blood fast. It was a wild change of events."

Busch stayed out when Stewart made his pit fake, as did Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I was surprised some guys came down pit road and gave up track position," said Earnhardt, who finished third and moved up to third in the season standings.

Everybody was hoping we could get to the halfway mark. But this car was bad fast. Whether we got more rain or went back green, I was happy with my car.

-- Tony Stewart

Busch finished second, and he was OK with it. But he wasn't OK with Juan Pablo Montoya getting in the way (trying to stay on the lead lap) while Busch was trying to hold off Stewart for the lead.

"Whenever the leaders get to those guys [Montoya], they are not very courteous," Busch said. "They try to take away the air off your car so you can't get by them. He was just mirror-driving me.

"With rain coming, we all knew it was just a matter of time. We all thought if we could get to 100 [laps] in front, we'd be the winner. But Stewart was way faster. I wasn't going to push the issue at that point. But the rain came and we didn't have any more time."

From the time the green flag flew, Stewart raced like a guy who was running out of time. Actually, he raced like a man whose pants (or firesuit) was on fire. He wasn't playing around.

On the gnarly old ACS pavement, a situation that has greatly improved the racing here, Stewart was slipping and sliding his way past anyone who got in his way.

He put a slide move on Kevin Harvick to get by him, leaving Harvick less than happy about Smoke's aggressive tactics so early in the race. Stewart also went old-school on Hamlin, making moves worthy of his dirt-tracker roots.

"Running eight sprint-car races this year hasn't hurt us so far out here," Stewart said. "We were getting dialed in pretty well there. Denny and Kyle were really fast too. It would have been a good battle if it continued."

Maybe, but these are the facts: Stewart now has won seven of the past 15 Cup events, dating back to his Chase run for the title last season. And he's done it with two crew chiefs -- Darian Grubb last year and Steve Addington now.

At this point, the Three Stooges (who gave the command to start engines Sunday) could be on top of the 14 pit box and the results probably wouldn't change. But give Addington credit for electing to stay out when the caution came for rain.

"I'm really proud of Steve and our guys," Stewart said. "Rain or no rain, I felt we had a car that could win today."

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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