One bad day in the last ten races of the Sprint Cup Chase can be enough to doom an entire season. Clint Bowyer had already found that out with his post-Loudon penalty stripping him of all that weekend's points; and last Sunday at Fontana, several more favourites for Sprint Cup success were about to have their championship hopes all but wrecked.
Under the blue skies and warm sunshine of California, the early stages of the race were quiet enough: Jamie McMurray converted pole into a 15 lap stint in the lead after besting Juan Montoya and Matt Kenseth in a three-wide battle on lap 1. Montoya was to drift up and hit the wall on lap 9 which put him off the pace, leaving Kenseth to take over responsibility for heading the field from McMurray on lap 15.
Montoya's encounter with the wall didn't bring out a caution, and the race was still green by lap 37 when pit stops were well underway; Kenseth kept the lead ahead of Clint Bowyer who had been making good practice climbing up from his starting position of 13th through the opening laps; and Jimmie Johnson was third despite an early scare with engine temperatures climbing sky-high because of debris on the front grill. That was cleared up during the pit stops which proved very timely for Jimmie, but further back there was more frustration for Juan Montoya who got a pit lane speeding penalty as a result of trying to compensate for a longer than usual pit stop attending to the damage from the earlier incident.
But on lap 40, just after the pit stops were completed, the yellow was out: and it was for Greg Biffle, whose engine let go in a serious plume of smoke and left him crawling into the garage. Fontana's notorious for being hard on engines, and everyone knew this was just the first engine-related exit of the day: but for Biffle, it's the nail in his Sprint Cup campaign coffin.
The field came in for another quick pit stop before the track went green again on lap 44, Kenseth leading Bowyer, Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler and Mark Martin. Team mates Gordon and Johnson worked together to push Gordon to the lead, but a lap later Johnson made a move for the lead himself. From behind came further pressure in the form of the #18 car of Kyle Busch, who had leapt up the positions thanks to a two-tyre strategy and was now slipping into second place behind Johnson.
Another yellow came out on lap 54 for Marcos Ambrose, who had two flat tyres after spinning in turn 2. Dale Earnhardt Jr stayed out as others pitted and got points for leading, with Johnson, Martin and Kyle Busch slotting in behind him; but at the next restart on lap 58 it was Kyle who got a flying start, diving down the inside line to take the lead - before another yellow was rapidly on display.
This time it was for Carl Edwards, whose car had simply died leaving him unable to get back to the pit lane and having to park up on the apron until the safety crew could give him a push home. The cause of death was eventually diagnosed as an ignition rotor failure, which was eventually fixed to allow him to return to the track and pick up a stray point or two despite being ultimately 13 laps off the lead.
Kyle Busch led the field to the green flag on lap 62, but it was Jimmie Johnson who was coming on strong and who snatched the lead almost straightaway. Kyle's pace had fallen away sharply - he called the car 'junk' on his way into the pits later on - and he would lose positions to Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman over the next half dozen laps; Martin went on to challenge his team mate Johnson for the lead, meeting with success on lap 73.
The Chase contenders not finding much success so far included Jeff Burton - 27th and 27s down on lap 87, the lowest-placed Sprint Cup runner still running at the time, and having had a sharp on-track encounter with his team mate Kevin Harvick earlier in the afternoon. Kurt Busch was hardly having a more successful time, running in 21st and complaining that his car felt to him as if it has "cookie sheets" under his tyres stopping him from getting it to go anywhere he wanted.
More green flag pit stops followed around the midway point of lap 100, after which Martin was still leading ahead of Johnson, Gordon, Bowyer, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, making it a Hendrick Motorsports top three. Martin was flying out in front, pulling out a 5s lead that was quashed the minute NASCAR called a yellow for debris. The pit stops had been good for Kurt Busch who was finally able to make progress up to 14th running very high up on the race track, while even Juan Montoya was on the rebound after his earlier problems and heading the right way up the standings in 18th.
During this new round of stops under caution, a mistake by his crew cost Mark Martin five spots, handing the lead to Jeff Gordon with Tony Steward in second, Martin Truex Jr. in third and Clint Bowyer holding tight in fourth, which he used to great effect at the restart to dive past Truex Jr. and Stewart to take up residence in second. It had not been a good spell for Kyle Busch, who had needed to make a second pit stop for a ventilation hose on the rear gear that had come loose with the vibrations, dropping the #18 out of the top 20 and having to work hard on the low side to get past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick on this way back.
Gordon wasn't able to hold his speed, and lost the lead to Bowyer on lap 126, second place to Martin the following lap and third place to Tony Stewart on lap 131. The fifth caution of the afternoon came on lap 137 when Marcos Ambrose once again spun, allowing the cars to make a new round of pit stops after which Bowyer was still in the lead with Gordon back in second ahead of Martin, Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.
This stage of the race was marked by Joey Logano falling back and losing seven places, while Kyle Busch suddenly had all the speed he could handle and was charging up through the midfield until the two of them came together to tussle over 13th position, which is what they were doing when the sixth caution came out on lap 145 for debris once again.
Most of the leaders stayed out this time - Matt Kenseth one of very few to come in for a fresh four-pack of runner boots - and at the restart Clint Bowyer found himself ousted from the lead by Tony Stewart, while further back things were getting fast and furious and multi-way-wide across the race track, Kyle Busch opportunistically making up a few spots by diving low on the inside line.
But that was as far as Kyle was getting in this race, and pretty much in the Chase itself: on lap 155, the #18's engine suddenly let go. "I knew it was coming", said Kyle, who had picked up on a "weird pop" from the intake some five laps previously. His force was tight with frustration and anger as he stated with forced calm: "There you have it. If anyone wasn't sure this championship was over, it certainly is now."
Juan Montoya leapt eighteen positions to the lead at the ensuing pit stops with a two-tyre strategy that put him ahead of Stewart, Ryan Newman, Bowyer, Martin and Kenseth, with Casey Mears in seventh the next driver to risk a two-tyre approach. But Jeff Gordon's race hopes were pit by a pit lane entry speeding penalty putting him back down in 25th position.
Montoya's tyre gambit was swiftly revealed as short-term, with Tony Stewart taking the lead back as the track went green on lap 160; Stewart would lose the lead to Clint Bowyer eight laps later, as the race entered its final staged with just 32 laps to go.
Bowyer's lead was up to 3s by lap 183 when the eighth caution of the afternoon came out for debris in turn 3 - debris that Bowyer maintained had been there for several laps before NASCAR threw the flag at the moment it would cost him, Bowyer, the most. Clearly the battles of recent weeks have left deep scars and a slightly paranoid state of mind: although as the saying goes, being paranoid doesn't mean that they aren't out to get you!
The mystery caution relieved the threat of drivers running dry before the end, and set up a critical final round of pit stops. But two cars - Paul Menard and Regan Smith - opted to stay out and head the double file restart on lap 188 ahead of Bowyer, Stewart, Martin, Johnson and Denny Hamlin.
Menard and Smith were pawns for the real leaders of the race: Stewart boosted Menard for all he was worth, and with Smith blocking the inside line Smoke attempted to sweep around the outside into the lead. Smith did his best to hold off Stewart but ultimately the fresh rubber on the #14 was irresistible and Stewart claimed the race lead next time around.
As the race entered its final stages, suddenly a third Roush Fenway Chase contender was hitting problems: smoke was coming from under the bodywork of early leader Matt Kenseth's car. The initial impression was that this was tyre rub resulting from damage after some earlier jostling, but soon enough it was clear that the car was badly underpowered. The engine failure might not have been as dramatic as that of Biffle and Busch earlier in the race, but it would prove to be serious enough to drop him down to the back of the lead lap in 30th position by the chequered flag. Essentially, that's Kenseth's Chase over and done with as well - Fontana had taken a heavy toll this year
All that remained was the race win, but there would be one final accident and yellow flag before we got there: on lap 194, David Ragan - who had been sweeping up and down the race track with some wild moves - finally drifted up the race track right into the path of Kurt Busch, who had been running the extreme outside line practically bouncing off the wall. Kurt's front clipped the right rear of Ragan, who spun across the front of the #2 car and stayed there impaled until both cars had lost speed and dropped to the inside. Ragan's day was over, but Busch was able to limp back to the pits with a blown left front tyre and pull off enough in the way of repairs to get back out and salvage 21st position - a grave disappointment and a definite Chase setback, but not the total disaster that had befallen his brother earlier in the day.
When the race restarted there were only two laps to run, and Stewart had the race under control - taking the chequered flag and his first ever Fontana win ahead of Bowyer and Johnson. It puts Stewart right back in the from for the Sprint Cup - in fifth position in the championship, 107pts off the leader - who of course continues to be Jimmie Johnson, who's consistently strong finishes through the final races of the year are the secret of his Chase success.Full race results