Frustrating Finish for Stewart at Fontana
Office Depot/Mobil 1 Driver Fades from Third to 13th in Final Nine Laps
Tony Stewart ran among the top-five for nearly all of Sunday’s 200-lap Auto Club 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. It was the final nine laps around the 2-mile oval that posed a problem.
After the race’s final restart on lap 192 where Stewart was second behind race-leader Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, Stewart’s No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala faded. The driver/owner of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) quickly found himself outside the top-10, and when the checkered flag dropped, he was an agonizing 13th.
It was a bitter pill to swallow, as Stewart led four times for 11 laps and spent much of the race behind Busch, who led five times for a race-high 151 laps.
But before Stewart got to the lead, he and crew chief Darian Grubb had to fine tune their Office Depot/Mobil 1 ride.
After starting fifth, Stewart immediately found his car much too loose for his liking, and he fell to 10th before a green flag pit stop on lap 33. Four tires, fuel and a track bar adjustment were made by the SHR crew under the guidance of Grubb, and the changes began working almost immediately.
Stewart began a charge toward the front of the field and was back to fifth by lap 52. He took over the top spot for the first time on lap 68 as the race went caution free for the first 75 circuits. He would swap the point with Busch and run shotgun to him for much of the race.
But with 25 laps remaining, things began to get difficult for Stewart and Co. On lap 175, the race restarted after the third caution of the day, with Busch leading, Stewart in second and Johnson holding down the third spot.
Johnson was able to get past Stewart on lap 180, while Busch continued to build his lead as the laps wound down.
The fourth and final caution on lap 187 gave hope to the No. 14 team that they would be able to make one final charge for their first victory of the season. None of the lead cars opted to go to pit road, and it appeared as though a fantastic trophy dash to the finish was set to take place, with Stewart right in the thick of it.
However, when the race restarted on lap 192, Stewart’s car couldn’t hang with the leaders, and he fell outside the top-10 after just one lap. He did all he could to gain ground in the final laps, but the 13th-place result was all that could be attained.
“We’re not really sure what happened,” Grubb said. “Obviously, we’re pleased with the way the car ran for the majority of the race, but it’s pretty disappointing that we ended up where we did. For whatever reason, we couldn’t get going in the laps after the final restart and it cost us a ton of positions.”
Stewart’s SHR teammate, Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army Partners for Youth Success (PaYS) Chevrolet Impala, led once for eight laps en route to a fifth-place finish. It was his third top-five finish of the season and his fourth top-five in 17 career Sprint Cup starts at Fontana.
Kevin Harvick passed Johnson on the final lap to win the Auto Club 400 and score his 15th career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his first at Fontana. Johnson finished .144 of a second behind Harvick in the runner-up spot, while Busch, Matt Kenseth and Newman rounded out the top-five. Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne and pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were four caution periods for 16 laps, with seven drivers failing to finish.
With round five of 36 complete, Newman moved up one spot to second in the Sprint Cup championship point standings and sits just nine markers back of new leader Edwards. Stewart fell three spots to sixth in the standings and is 17 points back of Edwards.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the April 3 Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.