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Fontana win puts Stewart back in the Chase

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.




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