Stewart's rain-soaked Fontana win more than just luck; more thoughts
Despite the rain delay, Tony Stewart's fast car deserved to win the Auto Club 400
Jeff Gordon's season took a major hit after the driver finished 26th at Fontana
With what looked like a top-five car, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a third-place finish
Who says it never rains in southern California? Sprint Cup drivers and crew chiefs looked at the radar prior to Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway and knew it was coming. There was a sense of urgency to get to the front and stay there. If the rain arrived past the 100-lap halfway point and the race didn't restart, the leader would be the celebrating in a wet victory circle.
"With the rain coming on, we all knew it was just going to be a matter of time," Kyle Busch said. "Probably lap 60 or 70 we were all thinking, okay, we're going to race to lap 100 here because that's halfway. Whoever is leading after halfway, if the rains get here right in time, you'll be the winner. That's how we all started playing it."
Busch led 80 of the initial 84 laps before Tony Stewart passed him and was leading when the rain arrived on the 124th lap, all run under green-flag conditions. After five laps under caution, NASCAR red flagged it and declared the race official within an hour.
Stewart's victory was his seventh in the last 15 races and second in five this season with new crew chief Steve Addington.
Without further delay, here are five things we learned in the Auto Club 258:
1. Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet was the fastest car and deserved to win the race.
The rain didn't make Stewart a fluke or lucky winner. He started ninth and drove to the front. Stewart even used one of his old USAC short-track moves, a slide job, to get past Kevin Harvick, who wasn't every happy about it.
"The good thing is we didn't back into the lead because we stayed out, the leaders came in," Stewart said. "I mean, we were leading the thing and had earned that spot. Proud of that."
The three-time Sprint Cup champion has never been this strong this early in the season. The victory was his second this March and Stewart had only one previously in the month in his career.
"It's been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have," Stewart said. "The 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. I mean, Daytona was probably our weakest race, and I know I made decisions trying to make things happen, and didn't work out, but it wasn't because our cars weren't good. We've had top 10 cars and top 5 cars every race this year after that."
Stewart and Addington have taken off from where Stewart and the departed Darian Grubb (to Denny Hamlin) left off in winning the championship last year. They're clearly a potent combination, an early championship favorite.
2. Hamlin and Grubb made the wrong call on the rain and it cost them nine points.
Hamlin was running second in the No. 11 Toyota when the caution came out and he pitted. He finished 11th.
"I feel we took the safe move," Hamlin said during the red flag period before the race was ended. "The risky move was to stay out. If this goes back green, Tony [Stewart] is going to have to restart way in the back. It's going to really hurt your chances of winning the race."
Hamlin admitted after the race he didn't realize the rain was coming to stay.
"I didn't know the rain was really coming," he said. "It was a move to win the race."
3. Jeff Gordon's season took another hit.
Gordon drove his No. 24 Chevrolet from 21st starting spot to fifth, but on his third stop -- on lap 107 -- the fuel can struck in the tank when he pulled out of his pit box. Gordon went a lap down after doing a stop-and-go penalty and finished 26th. The four-time Sprint Cup champion is 25th in the points and has only one top-10 this season, eighth at Phoenix.
"Driving from 21st to the top five was a lot of fun," Gordon said. "There's not much you can do when the fuel can gets stuck. It was just not our day on pit road. It's been a struggle this year with results."
4. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus made the wrong call to pit, but the rain saved them.
Johnson was running fourth and pitted under the caution. He returned in 10th and discovered under the yellow laps the No. 48 Chevrolet was smoking. It had an oil leak and would have needed an extended pit stop to repair if the race had resumed. Instead, Johnson finished 10th and moved into ninth in the points.
"It's just a wild change of events, because when I came to pit road and took four tires, I wanted it to dry up real quick," Johnson said during the red-flag period. "Now I'm sitting here praying for rain. As I'm sending these signals to the man upstairs he is really confused as to what I have been asking for in the last three or four minutes."
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a top-five car, ended up third and climbed to third in the points.
Earnhardt gained two spots when Hamlin and Johnson pitted, but the No. 88 Chevrolet had been solid throughout.
"I'm really happy. I'm performing better," Earnhardt said. "Most of the credit has to go to [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] and the team. Those guys did a great job today on pit road. We had some really good stops. Steve is doing an amazing job. He deserves most of the credit for how well we're running. He's giving me really good cars, cars that are fun to drive, relatively easy to drive.
"I like how our season is going so far. 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."