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Stewart wins abbreviated Fontana race

26 March 2012

The Auto Club 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race was a curiously perfunctory affair, with teams up and down pit road seemingly having to spend more time obsessing over the weather radar than they did the action on the track.

The problem was clear: a weather front was slowly rolling over southern California toward Fontana and the 2-mile oval that is the Auto Club Speedway. Once it hit, it was going to rain for a good long while and that would be the end of any chance of racing on Sunday. So the question was whether NASCAR could get the race past halfway or not, the point at which it becomes 'official'.

Perhaps that's why everyone was on their best behaviour for the race. There were no serious collisions or incidents, everyone kept off the wall: no one wanted to be the cause of a caution that could make the difference between getting to the lap 100 midway point or ending up forcing a costly restart on Monday. And as a result, there were no caution flags at all during the race, right up until the moment the rain finally rolled in over turn 3 and forced an initial yellow that soon became a red.

Kyle Busch had led for almost two thirds of the race distance by that point, taking the lead on the first lap from his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate and polesitter Denny Hamlin. The #18 then cruised around through to lap 84 with a grand total of only three laps out of the lead during a round of green flag pit stops around the lap 70 mark.

But as the race neared that all-important halfway point, Tony Stewart took one look at the clouds overhead and hit the warp drive button, soon closing down the gap Busch had built up and then taking the lead for himself on lap 85. When Busch tried to respond, he overreached himself and glanced the wall on lap 93 - not enough to do any serious harm or to bring out the dreaded caution, but sufficient to take the edge off the car's previous race-leading performance. He settled for trying to keep second from Hamlin.

"Trying to run back with Stewart's lap times, that's when I was trying too hard," Busch admitted. "[Got] too close to the fence, got myself in trouble there, caught the right-side a little bit."

That meant that with the exception of three laps during another green flag pit stop sequence, Tony Stewart would stay in front right up to the point where the race was called. The rain finally rolled in shortly after 3pm: by then the race had been underway for just over one and a half hours and had reached lap 125, well past the crucial halfway mark which meant there was no need to rollover to Monday to complete proceedings - to everyone's intense relief.

For a few minutes the cars circulated under yellow and the rain actually started to ease off, suggesting that they might get underway again. If it did, then the cars that pitted now under this caution would have the edge; but if it stayed yellow then they would be throwing away their track position needlessly.

Tony Stewart made a feint towards pit lane but had absolutely no intention of giving up the top spot; he was genuinely surprised when Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin all did go onto pit road for tyres and fuel.

"I don't think that I faked him out," said Stewart about Hamlin's move to pit road."I'm sure he had made his decision already. Looked good, though!"

Hamlin said he hadn't been psyched out and that it was entirely his own game plan he was following: "We were planning on the race going back to green, and if it doesn't, we'll lose some spots, but if we chose to stay out there, we would have to be behind all the cars that pitted [if there was a restart]," explained Hamlin. "[In that case], your chance of winning decreases greatly.

Johnson's dive to pit road was more of an emergency situation: his engine was leaking fluid and wasn't going to last much longer. Of all the drivers still circulating out on the rapidly-deteriorating track, Johnson was the most relieved when NASCAR's hand was forced and the red flag came out: the way that the oil collected under the #48 as it sat in pit road during rhe ensuing stoppage was proof that there was no way it was going back out on track if the race restarted.

Half an hour later, they called the race; Stewart had won and Busch had second and Johnson survived to keep tenth place while Hamlin ended up 11th.

Busch wasn't too frustrated at the early end to the day that deprived him of the chance to try and come back at Stewart in the closing laps. "I wish we would have been able to race the whole thing, on the one hand," he 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 there.

Kyle's brother Kurt lucked into tenth spot just ahead of those who had opted to pit by deciding to staying out. It gave him his first time in the top ten since his move from Penske to Phoenix Racing over the winter.

Johnson had better luck than his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Jeff Gordon, who finished down in 26th place after falling off the lead lap serving a stop-go penalty for dragging his refueler out of the pit box during his pit stop on lap 108. Matt Kenseth also took a penalty for having a tyre run out of his pit box during his stop under yellow.

All in all, though, everyone was just happy to get this one in the record books and to get out of Fontana on time, able to cross the country and prepare for next weekend's events at Martinsville.

Full race times and positions available.


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