After three weeks of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Tony Stewart had dug himself quite the hole in his pursuit of his third NASCAR championship. Despite having a strong car and leading late, Stewart ran out of gas coming to the white flag in the Chase opener in Loudon. A mediocre run at Dover and a fourth place finish in Kansas put Stewart back to 10th in the Chase, 127 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

That number got a lot smaller on Sunday, after Stewart was able to earn his first win at the Auto Club Speedway. Leading three times for a total of 27 laps, the driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet took the checkered flag ahead of Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. The victory bumps Stewart to fifth in the Chase, now 107 points behind Johnson.

“I knew we were going to have our hands full with (Jimmie Johnson) and thank goodness Clint Bowyer got up there and mixed it up and broke his momentum,” Stewart said.

“We’re doing everything we can do,” he added, speaking of the championship. “We’re going to need some help, but we’re doing everything we can do. I’m proud of these guys, and just so thankful.”

Following the unsuccessful gamble in Loudon and struggles in Dover, Stewart and his Darian Grubb-led-team rebounded with a fourth place finish in Kansas. Fast in New Hampshire, fast in Kansas and victorious in Fontana, Stewart has quickly rejoined the title hunt with six races left.

“You know, it’s a situation where we were at and as many points as we were out and have been out since day one, we have the flexibility to just look forward and not worry about if we take a gamble and it doesn’t work,” Stewart said. “We still have to be mindful of it, obviously. But the penalty for us isn’t that great when you’re 10th in points. You can take a chance, and if it doesn’t work out, what are you losing, two spots?”

Richard Childress Racing’s Clint Bowyer’s title chances were gone when NASCAR failed their race winning car from Loudon. Sunday in Fontana, Bowyer’s chance to score his second victory in four races was taken by a late race caution for debris.

The eighth caution of the day flew on Lap 183, bringing the field to pit road and changing the complexion of the race. With a comfortable lead prior to the caution, Bowyer restarted third and struggled to maintain with Stewart as he battled for position with Johnson and Kahne.

With the checkered flag in the air, Bowyer was able to get the best of Johnson and come home second as they raced side-by-side to the finish.

“I didn’t need that caution to come out there,” Bowyer said. “That piece of debris was back there the whole run, but finally a mysterious caution came out. Tony (Stewart) just beat us there at the end.”

Bowyer gave no comment when asked if he felt NASCAR threw the caution while he was leading in an effort to prove a point, but did question the timing of their decision.

“I saw it for a long time,” Bowyer said of the debris. “The biggest one, though, was like a whole rear of a car laying down in 1 and 2 the first run. I guess they never saw that one. You know, I mean, hell, it’s part of it. What do you say? You know, I got one from Tony Stewart when he ran out of gas, and I felt like we had that race won until the caution came out, and he got one.”

Going into Sunday’s race, most looked to Johnson as the man to beat for both the win and the championship title. Leading 22 laps, Johnson finished in the third spot and grew his point lead over Denny Hamlin.

“I think if it had stayed green at the end, we had a shot to get the No. 14 (Tony Stewart),” said Johnson. “But it didn’t turn out that way, there was a caution at the end with that wreck. Starting on the inside was kind of a problem for me. I just didn’t get going like I needed to. The No. 33 (Clint Bowyer) got there.”

Losing a little ground to Johnson in the title hunt, Hamlin’s day was hard-fought from the start. Struggling in practice and qualifying, Hamlin’s team changed the transmission prior to the race, forcing him to start from the rear. A major setback for some, Hamlin methodically worked his way to 11th just 50 laps into the race. Salvaging an eighth place finish, Hamlin is now 36 points behind Johnson.

Last week’s winner Greg Biffle was not as lucky. Entering the day only 85 points out of the Chase lead, Biffle’s day went up in smoke when something broke under the hood only 40 laps into the race.

“It’s disappointing, but what can you do? It broke,” Biffle said. “Everybody is giving this program 110 percent, so you can’t blame anybody. We were trying hard to win the title and it isn’t gonna happen this year.”

Biffle was not the only Chase driver to have issues in Fontana. Teammate Carl Edwards came to a rest on the speedway as the field came to green on Lap 58. Taking the car behind the wall, the team changed the distributor and sent Edwards back on the track, where he finished 34th. The poor finish dropped Edwards three spots in the Chase, now 162 points out of the lead.

Kyle Busch also went behind the wall with engine issues, ending his day early. Running in the top 10 for much of the afternoon, Busch’s motor let go on Lap 155. Over the radio, Busch told the team their title chances were gone. After four races, Busch is ninth in the Chase, 187 points behind. 

"If anybody wasn’t sure this championship was over, it’s certainly over now."

Older brother Kurt did not fare much better, getting caught up in a late race caution with David Ragan. Running outside the top 15 for much of the day, Busch hit the wall when Ragan came off the bottom of the corner all the way to the top of the track, across Busch’s nose. Despite damage, Busch was able to charge from 30th to 21st in the closing laps – thanks to some great four- and five-wide racing.

Next week the series heads to the Charlotte Motor Speedway for a night race in front of the home town crowd. Four races into the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup and it appears the race is coming down to Johnson, Hamlin, Harvick, Gordon and Sunday’s winner Tony Stewart. Kurt Busch sits sixth in points, 140 marks out, but he can make history by sweeping all three races at Charlotte – the All-Star Race, Coca-Cola 600 and Bank of America 500.

With the short track in Martinsville and the "wild card race" at Talladega on the horizon, the Chase is still up for grabs. Anything can happen over the course of a race and Sunday’s race showed Chase drivers are not immune from self-inflicted woes. Yet, Stewart and his team showed they could overcome their own self-inflicted wounds from earlier in the Chase.

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