Tony Stewart battled past Kyle Busch to take his second win in three races at a rain-hit Auto Club Speedway. For Stewart, who has won 7 of the last 15 races, including at Las Vegas two weeks previously, his latest visit to victory lane owed a great deal to new-crew chief Steve Addington, who outfoxed Stewart's former crew chief Darian Grubb, now with Denny Hamlin's no.11 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
While the Stewart-Haas Racing no.14 remained on track in the hope that rain would cause the race to be called, Hamlin relinquished his second place by coming down pit road. However, the move would prove costly as the race was not restarted, dropping Hamlin to eleventh. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third, ahead of last year's winner Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, who retained the championship lead with a steady run to sixth.
“You hate to have them end with rain like that. But I’ve lost some that way,” a jubilant Stewart said. “The good thing is, we didn’t back into the lead because we stayed out, the leaders came in. I mean, we were leading the thing and had earned that spot. [I'm] proud of that.”
Even if the race had stayed dry, Stewart would certainly have been the man to beat; after wresting the lead from Busch on lap 85, Stewart was never headed, his car perfectly balanced throughout the caution-free stint. Busch had no answer for the reigning Sprint Cup champion, and this was compounded by contact with the wall, which caused his handling to deteriorate.
“I wish we would have been able to race the whole thing, on the one hand,” Rowdy said, “but, on the other hand, I’m kind of glad we’re not, because we have a little bit of damage that slowed us down.
“Trying to run back with Stewart’s lap times, that’s when I was trying too hard, too close to the fence, got myself in trouble there – caught the right-side a little bit.”
For his part, Hamlin was understandably irked by the intervention of rain, which spoiled the polesitter's day and left him with an unrepresentative result, but stuck by the decision to pit at the end, which he considered the less riskier option if the race was restarted.
“We were planning on the race going back green,” Hamlin said. “If it doesn’t, then we’ll lose some spots. If we chose to stay out there, then we were going to have to be behind all the cars that pitted. Then your chances of winning decreases greatly. You either give up a few spots if it finishes up here, or you lose a chance to win in the grand scheme of things.”
“We have a top-two or three car â€” had it all day. We just now got it to where we can run these guys down and get to Tony and then it rains. It’s just one of those things.”
Aside from Busch, the chief beneficiary of Hamlin's strategic miscue was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who was among the contingent of drivers who stayed out. Despite extending his winless streak to 134 races, Junior currently sits third in points and declared himself happy with his seasonal performance so far.
“I like how our season is going so far,” the sport's most popular driver said. “If we can keep going like this, we might get some opportunities like we did last year of winning some races and seal the deal, eventually.”
Junior's form contrasted greatly with his Hendrick Motorsport team-mates. Home-town hero Jimmie Johnson, dealt a nice surprise mid-week when his expected penalty for a C-Post violation at Daytona was overturned, had the fortune to suffer an oil-leak under caution; had the race been resumed, Johnson would almost certainly have been unable to maintain his tenth place. After another crash at Bristol, Kasey Kahne's Twitter fans rallied behind the hashtag #faithinthe5, and although Kahne was never a factor, he did manage to finish 15th, tweeting afterwards: “happy my car is in one piece.”
Hendrick's best hopes for a good finish had originally been placed on the shoulders of Jeff Gordon. After running strongly early on, Gordon's no.24 was penalised when his crew members proved unable to extract his stuck gas can before he had left his pit box – dropping him to an unhappy 26th.
Elsewhere, Saturday's Nationwide Series race winner Joey Logano was off the pace of team-mates Busch and Hamlin en route to 24th, his worst result of the season – which also dropped him out of the top 10 in points – while last week's winner Brad Keselowski, who finished 3rd in the Nationwide race, also failed to trouble the frontrunners and finished down in 18th.
Stewart currently sits 4th in points, and believes his good start, something Stewart has traditionally never had, is a good omen for the season ahead.
“It’s been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have,” he said. “History shows in the last 13 years we have not had the strongest starts the first third of the year. I’m really, really excited about the start that we’ve got going. We’ve been strong everywhere we’ve been.”
If he is right, then things look ominous for the rest of the field in 2012.