SMOKE BECOMES FIRST TWO-TIME WINNER IN 2012 DESPITE RAIN

Fan favorite Dale Jr moves to third in the championship standings

With his second Top 5 finish of 2012, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits third in the NASCAR Championship standings (photo courtesy: Jonathan Ferrey, GETTY IMAGES SPORT)

Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and defending Ford 400 winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Tony Stewart,  scored his second win of 2012 at Auto Club Speedway, earned his second Top 10 finish of 2012, and claimed his second career victory at Auto Club Speedway in Race 5 of 36 en route to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 16-18). Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 16-18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—go on sale May 1. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

Stewart took over the lead at Lap 85 and in dominating fashion paced the field until rain ended the 200-lap contest at Lap 129. The victory moves Stewart to fourth in the point standings only 18 markers from the leader Greg Biffle. The Top 12 drivers in points after Race 26 qualify to contend for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, to be crowned in Miami on Nov. 18. Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 16-18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—go on sale May 1. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

So far this season “Smoke” is making all the right moves on the track and all the right calls when it matters the most. With 20 laps to go until halfway and rain closing in, Stewart decided it was time to make his move. Kyle Busch had the race lead to himself for 80 of the first 85 laps until the No. 14 car passed him.

"Everybody was hoping we could get to the halfway mark," Stewart said in a post race TV interview. "But this car was bad fast. Whether we got more rain or went back green, I was happy with my car."

Stewart now has won seven of the past 15 NASCAR Sprint Cup races dating back to 2011 including last year’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart needed to be in front at Lap 100, halfway through the scheduled 200-lap event. He made it  and stayed there until the end, thanks to a wise fake-job decision to stay out of the pits when the caution flew as the raindrops fell. Denny Hamlin, who was second, appeared to take the bait.

"I don't think I faked him out," Stewart said. "It looked good, though."

Hamlin turned toward the pits when Stewart did, but stayed his course and came down pit road, as did Jimmie Johnson. Hamlin said the No. 11 team was coming in no matter what Stewart did.

"This is strategy you make," Hamlin said in a TV interview. "We were planning on the race going back green. Otherwise, you lose a chance to win in the grand scheme of things."

What he lost was nine spots in the box score when NASCAR called it official after 129 laps. Hamlin finished 11th.

Johnson finished 10th, but the rain was his friend. He cracked an oil line under caution, and the red flag saved him from a much worse fate.

"I really don't know what caused it," Johnson said on a TV interview. "I guess some debris hit an oil line and snagged it. It's like we ruptured an artery and were losing blood fast. It was a wild change of events."

Busch stayed out when Stewart made his pit fake, as did Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR’s most popular driver, Earnhardt Jr., finished in the third position, which marked his second top-five effort of 2012. The run was Earnhardt Jr.’s fifth top-10 finish in 20 races at Auto Club Speedway. Junior currently sits third in the NASCAR championship standings.

"I was surprised some guys came down pit road and gave up track position," said Earnhardt.

Busch finished second, and was pleased with the effort. But he was not pleased with Juan Pablo Montoya getting in the way (trying to stay on the lead lap) while Busch was trying to hold off Stewart for the lead.

"Whenever the leaders get to those guys [Montoya], they are not very courteous," Busch said. "They try to take away the air off your car so you can't get by them. He was just mirror-driving me.

"With rain coming, we all knew it was just a matter of time. We all thought if we could get to 100 [laps] in front, we'd be the winner. But Stewart was way faster. I wasn't going to push the issue at that point. But the rain came and we didn't have any more time."

Perennial championship contender Kevin Harvick finished fourth; and sits second in the point standings just seven spots behind first place Biffle.

 Rain or shine, Stewart is doing everything right.

Next up for the Sprint Cup Series drivers is Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, April 1 (12:30 p.m. ET, Fox TV, MRN Radio)—Race 6 of 36 en route to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 16-18). The Top 12 drivers in points after Race 26 qualify to contend for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, to be crowned in Miami on Nov. 18. Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 16-18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—go on sale May 1. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

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