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Smoke's Race Goes Up In Smoke Stewart a Contender at California Until Engine Expires Tony Stewart appeared to be the only driver capable of challenging Greg Biffle for the win in Sunday's Auto Club 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at...

Smoke's Race Goes Up In Smoke
Stewart a Contender at California Until Engine Expires

Tony Stewart appeared to be the only driver capable of challenging Greg Biffle for the win in Sunday's Auto Club 500 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at California Speedway in Fontana. Unfortunately for both drivers, engine failure cut short their race and their shot at victory

Biffle had dominated the 251-lap race around the 2-mile oval, leading five times for 168 laps. But it was Stewart who was able to reel Biffle in during the waning laps of a race run, as evidenced by his leading twice for 28 laps.

But with less than 40 laps remaining and Biffle and Stewart running 1-2, the anticipated showdown between the two combatants blew up - literally.

The engine in Stewart's #20 Home Depot Chevrolet expired on lap 214. And as Biffle motored on and the rest of the field trailed, the driver known as "Smoke" coasted into the garage area trailing a plume of smoke. The resulting 43rd place finish ended a 30-race streak of running at the finish that dated back to Phoenix last April.

"We were really pretty good," said Stewart, calm and collected moments after climbing from his car. "These things are so aero-dependent that our car wasn't really good on the front of a run. But we were really good in the middle and end of a run. I don't know if we were going to be good enough to catch (Biffle), but if we had a caution we were going to be able make one more adjustment and be really, really good at the end of the night."

Unfortunately for Stewart, the caution flag waved for him. But 15 laps later, the same fate befell Biffle. With Biffle's engine silent and a 42nd place finish guaranteed, the two best cars were out of the race.

Matt Kenseth, arguably with the third-best car, won the Auto Club 500 to score his 11th career Nextel Cup victory. Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson finished second, while Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Burton secured the rest of the top-five. Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, J.J. Yeley, Mark Martin and Kyle Busch comprised the rest of the top-10.

While the result of Sunday's race didn't sit well with the #20 Home Depot Racing Team, their performance did.

The team battled back from a botched pit stop and a flat tire to still contend for the win.

"We had a good day, but a bad day," said Stewart.  "There were a lot of
things that got us behind, mainly having the flat tire.  We had a fast
race car, and that's really encouraging for the whole year.  I'm really
proud of these guys.  They did an awesome job.

"We had a miscue in the pits and went from leading the race to 15th and I think we got back up to fourth or fifth and then had the tire go down. Fighting back from a lap down - that was a pretty impressive effort. Everybody did a great job, and I don't think we had any complaints there. We made a change on our last pit stop, we just made it the wrong way. But if we had one more shot at getting the car right, we might've been able to do something.

"Dropping out is not the way you want to end the day, by any means. But at the same time, to run as well as we did today and to fight back from what was handed to us, I'm almost as excited as if we won the race just from the standpoint of what we were able to overcome.

"This is how we won a championship last year. The good thing is that the guys will leave here excited about the performance of how we ran. They're not going to be excited by how we finished, obviously, but we'll look past that and see the big picture.

"When we were here at this time last year, we were in bad shape. And when we left, we knew we had a lot of work to do. I think we showed today that we're right on top of our game. We don't normally run this strong this early in the year, so I'm really excited about where we are right now."

With only two races down and 34 races ahead, Stewart sits 22nd in points, 156 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson.

Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates - J.J. Yeley and Denny Hamlin enjoyed much better days. Yeley turned his career-best fourth-place starting spot into a career-best eighth-place finish while Hamlin drove to a solid 12th place effort. Yeley and Hamlin now sit 23rd and 20th, respectively, in points.

The Nextel Cup Series takes a weekend off before heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the March 12 UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400. The race starts at 4:30 p.m. EST with live coverage provided by FOX.

-jgr-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Casey Mears , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Kasey Kahne , J.J. Yeley , Carl Edwards , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing