Tony Stewart fended off Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer in a sprint to the finish at Fontana's Auto Club Speedway, claiming his second win of the season and charging back in the NASCAR Chase standings.
The two-time Sprint Cup champion, who ran as a contender among the top five for most of the event, made an impressive restart following the penultimate caution period, claiming the lead from fourth in the order after the green flag waved with 12 laps remaining.
An incident between David Ragan and title contender Kurt Busch with seven laps to go set up a short sprint to the checkered flag in the final two laps, where five-time Fontana winner Jimmie Johnson looked to be a serious threat.
Stewart was quick off the line at the green flag and was able to clear Johnson before Turn 1, leaving the champion to battle it out for second with Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer on the final lap.
The Stewart-Haas owner/driver went on to claim his first career victory at Fontana, one of three venues where he had still to win for the first time, while behind him Bowyer managed to beat Johnson for second at the reigning champion's home track.
The win for Stewart means he has jumped up five spots in the Chase for the championship, and is now placed fifth – 107 points behind Johnson.
"I just knew the [final] restart was going to be critical and if I could get through [Turns] 1 and 2 and still have the lead off [Turn] 2, then I would have a shot at it," said Stewart, whose victory helped secure Chevrolet's eighth consecutive manufacturers' title. "We got a good restart picking the top there. Good thing Clint Bowyer was there to keep Jimmie honest and keep him busy, and that just let us do our own thing on the last lap and run our lines."
Bowyer was happy to bounce back from a few difficult weeks following his penalties after his win in the Chase opener at Loudon. However, he was unhappy to see the penultimate caution come out while he was comfortably in the lead, alleging that the debris that caused it had already been on the track for a while before officials decided to show the yellow flags.
"After the last two weeks we had, I'm frustrated." said Bowyer. "I want to redeem myself. We're a race-winning team and we need to go out and prove that that last one wasn't a hoax. That mystery caution came out. That piece of debris was out there the whole run. It's a shame, but I guess it made a better race out of it."
Johnson's third-place finish did not make the Hendrick Motorsports driver happy even though he now holds a healthier lead in the Chase standings over Denny Hamlin. He led the race three times, for 22 laps, but felt the final caution hurt his chances of beating Stewart as he had to contend with a charging Bowyer.
"I think if it had stayed green at the end, we had a shot to get the 14 [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 33 [Bowyer] got there."
Richard Petty Motorsports' Kasey Kahne and Stewart's teammate Ryan Newman rounded out the top five, while Mark Martin led the most laps but was sixth in the end, claiming his first top-10 result for the past nine weeks. Delays in the pits hampered his prospects of victory and the short green-flag runs in the closing stages did not help his chances either.
Kevin Harvick recovered from a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pits and finished seventh ahead of Hamlin, while Jeff Gordon similarly bounced back from a penalty to finish ninth, making the most of two new tires he got when he pitted during the final caution. David Reutimann rounded out the top 10 for Michael Waltrip Racing.
The race proved a nightmare for Roush Fenway Racing as all the team's cars hit trouble. First it was Kansas winner Greg Biffle suffering an engine failure, then Carl Edwards stopped on the track with electrical glitches, while a tire rubbing on a fender of Matt Kenseth's car in the final sprint put him way down in the order.
Kyle Busch suffered yet another blow to his title hopes after the engine on his car expired with 45 laps remaining and while running in the top 10.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 200
2. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 200
3. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 200
4. Kasey Kahne Ford 200
5. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 200
6. Mark Martin Chevrolet 200
7. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 200
8. Denny Hamlin Toyota 200
9. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 200
10. David Reutimann Toyota 200
11. Joey Logano Toyota 200
12. Regan Smith Chevrolet 200
13. Elliott Sadler Ford 200
14. Juan Pablo Montoya Chevrolet 200
15. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 200
16. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 200
17. Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 200
18. Martin Truex Jr Toyota 200
19. AJ Allmendinger Ford 200
20. David Gilliland Ford 200
21. Kurt Busch Dodge 200
22. Paul Menard Ford 200
23. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 200
24. Scott Speed Toyota 200
25. Casey Mears Toyota 200
26. Brad Keselowski Dodge 200
27. Reed Sorenson Toyota 200
28. Travis Kvapil Ford 200
29. Dave Blaney Ford 200
30. Matt Kenseth Ford 200
31. Kevin Conway Toyota 197
32. David Ragan Ford 193
33. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 193
34. Carl Edwards Ford 187
35. Kyle Busch Toyota 155
36. Andy Lally Chevrolet 76
37. Joe Nemechek Toyota 69
38. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 56
39. Michael McDowell Chevrolet 55
40. Landon Cassill Toyota 43
41. Greg Biffle Ford 40
42. JJ Yeley Chevrolet 33
43. Jason Leffler Toyota 23