Tony Stewart showed that he has truly put his bad start in The Chase behind him by winning the PepsiMax 400 Sprint Cup race at Fontana in the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet on Sunday.

His championship hopes started badly when he ran out of fuel on the white flag lap at Loudon and then dropped out of contention a week later at Dover’s Monster Mile when he incurred a pit lane speeding penalty. But Stewart always believed he, his team and the car were good enough to fight for the title and a fourth place at Kansas last week followed by yesterday’s win brings him from tenth up to fifth place in the standings and 107 points behind championship leader Jimmie Johnson. With six races still to run Stewart will certainly need luck on his side but equally he cannot be ruled out of the running just yet.

Johnson, who finished in third yesterday, extended his lead over Denny Hamlin in the title race from eight to 36 points after Hamlin’s eighth place finish. Only two other drivers are now within 100 points of the #48 driver as strives on his “drive to five” attempt to extend his run of four consecutive championships. Kevin Harvick who finished one place ahead of Hamlin is 54 points behind JJ and ninth place finisher Jeff Gordon is a further 31 points in arrears.

Second place finisher at Fontana, Clint Bowyer, was far from thrilled with his result feeling that he had been denied a certain victory after a caution flag was shown on lap 183 for debris in turn three which Bowyer felt had been there for the whole of the run. NASCAR has long been accused of showing spurious yellows to affect results and there was a feeling Bowyer may have felt this was one such case, especially since NASCAR and the #33 team have had their disagreements since Richmond in September. Nevertheless the result still leaves Bowyer embroiled in twelfth and last place among The Chase drivers, 247 points behind Johnson.

The Roush Fenway Racing team had a torrid time of it in the Californian sunshine with last week’s winner, Greg Biffle, suffering a blown engine as early as lap forty and effectively ending his chances of winning the championship. Just eighteen laps later the #99 car of Carl Edwards ground to a standstill at turn four and needed a push along pit road by the wrecker with what was eventually diagnosed as a faulty rotor arm but only after lengthy attempts at solving the problem. Edwards returned to the track fourteen laps down and was eventually classified 34th having made up just one of those laps.

Just when Roush Fenway thought it couldn’t get any worse Matt Kenseth, who had been running strongly in top ten placings for most of the race had his engine go off song towards the end of the race and ran the last few laps trailing a smokescreen behind him as he fell back to an eventual 30th place. Kyle Busch was another to suffer a blown engine, lap 155 in his case, and another to see his championship hopes vanish for this year. His elder brother’s luck was no better when David Ragan squeezed Kurt Busch‘s car against the wall, wrecking his own car and Busch’s championship chances in one move.

With so much misfortune for drivers in The Chase it gave non Chase drivers a chance to reap the benefits with fourth to sixth places being taken by Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin  and the final spot in the top ten being filled by David Reutimann.

Stewart’s win gives Chevrolet the  2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Manufacturers' Cup for the 34th time and their eighth consecutive title. Seven different drivers contributed to Team Chevy’s sixteen wins this year, Jimmie Johnson (6),  Kevin Harvick (3), Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart (2 apiece), and Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Clint Bowyer (1 each).

Saturday sees the next race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship at Charlotte.