For the second straight week, Tony Stewart and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team faced adversity. And for the second straight week, Stewart and Co. overcame it, earning their second straight top-five finish.
Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Stewart overcame a midrace spin that dropped him to last in the 43-car field. But just like last weekend at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway where Stewart finished fourth, a tenacious drive coupled with savvy pit strategy brought Stewart’s No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet home fifth in the Auto Club 400.
“Chad (Johnston, crew chief) did an awesome job all weekend, and our team did too,” said Stewart, who has risen from 27th in points to 17th in the last two races. “It wasn’t very good at the beginning. I had a problem where I spun. Chad thought it might’ve been a cut tire, and I had to tell him that it was just driver error. I messed up and spun early. The guys did an awesome job, but we kept fighting the balance (of the car). It was really loose off the corners. Chad kept working on it. We had really good pit stops when we needed it and got track position at the end, and Chad had another great call to get us another top-five.”
From the drop of the green flag, “loose” was a consistent refrain on the No. 14 team’s radio. Stewart was able to manage the issue during the first several laps around the 2-mile oval, but as the race wore on, the loose-handling condition worsened. It reached a tipping point on lap 57 when Stewart spun off the exit of turn two to bring out the caution.
Stewart did an expert job of keeping his Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevy off the walls, with the only damage being a flat left-rear tire. In an effort to minimize damage to his racecar, Stewart drove at half throttle around the apron of the track back to the pits, losing a lap to the leaders.
When the car reached the pit stall, Stewart’s team repaired minor left-rear damage, changed four tires, added fuel and made chassis adjustments. He restarted the race in 43rd-place.
The yellow caution flag waved again just 10 laps later, placing Stewart back on the lead lap and giving the No. 14 team the opportunity to make more adjustments to the Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevy.
Stewart made steady progress during the next several circuits around the track, climbing back into the top-20 by lap 100. As the laps wound down, Stewart and the team made more adjustments. With less than 30 remaining, Stewart reported that his car’s handling had improved at the exits of the turns and was the best it had been all day.
Stewart was in 12th-place when the last caution of the race was displayed on lap 199, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.
With all the leaders pitting, Johnston called for a two-tire pit stop to gain track position. The gamble paid off as Stewart came off pit road in third place for the green-white-checkered.
It was a frenetic two-lap dash to the finish, with Stewart vying for the lead with his SHR teammate Kurt Busch. Ultimately, Busch’s younger brother, Kyle, and rookie sensation Kyle Larson, swept by the duo in turn two of the final lap to take positions 1-2. Kurt Busch finished third, with Matt Kenseth nipping Stewart for fourth.
The top-five run was Stewart’s seventh in 23 career Sprint Cup starts at Fontana. It was also his 181st top-five in 526 career Sprint Cup starts.