Fontana, Calif Tony Stewart outdueled points leader Jimmie Johnson on a late restart and pulled away for his first career Sprint Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday.
Stewart started 22nd after a rough qualifying day, but was strong from the start of a lead-swapping 400-mile race, the final fall date at Fontana. He vaulted five spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with his first win in 19 tries at California, but Johnson pushed his points cushion to 36 over Denny Hamlin with six races left.
Clint Bowyer went around Johnson on the final lap to finish second in his first race without suspended crew chief Shane Wilson.
It wasn’t such a good day for several other Chase drivers. Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards all had their Chase chances dented by engine troubles, and Matt Kenseth finished a disappointing 30th.
Stewart was well back in the Chase after running out of fuel while leading late at Loudon and struggling at Dover. He had a good showing last week at Kansas, finishing fourth, but still entered this weekend 10th in points, 127 behind Johnson.
After the so-so qualifying run, “Smoke” started working his way to the front and was fifth by the midpoint. He took the lead with 51 laps left and snagged it back after briefly falling behind to Juan Pablo Montoya.
In the lead again late, Stewart opted not to pit after an accident took out Chase driver Kurt Busch and pulled away from Johnson on the restart with two laps left. Bowyer passed Johnson, but was nowhere close to Stewart at the end. Stewart moved up to fifth in the Chase, 107 points behind Johnson.
Johnson had made his now-expected surge to the top of the Chase standings, using a win at Dover and second last week at Kansas after a poor qualifying session to move past Hamlin.
This one has a little different feel, though, the aura of invincibility gone from the No. 48 after an atypical up-and-down season. Nine drivers were within 101 points after Kansas, making it one of the tightest races Johnson has faced during his Cup-after-Cup run.