There were a few raised eyebrows when NASCAR called the Auto Club 400 Sunday at 2:30 p.m. local time, hours before sunset.
Rain had stopped the race 71 laps short of its scheduled 200-lap length. A few minutes later, with rain still falling hard and more rain predicted, NASCAR cancelled the rest of the race, making leader Tony Stewart the winner.
The rain continued for at least two hours after NASCAR’s decision, making it very unlikely the track could have been dried and the race run to its full length before nightfall.
In the end, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Stewart had the day’s best car and probably would have been the man to beat under any scenario.
The defending series champion has been scary fast this year. Sunday’s victory was his second of the year, and, going back to the remarkable Chase he ran last season, he has won seven of the past 15 Sprint Cup races – the sort of tear that isn’t often produced in NASCAR’s top series.
“I hate to have them end with rain like that,” Stewart said. “I’ve lost some that way. The good thing is we didn’t back into the lead because we stayed out. We were leading this thing and earned that spot.
“I was proud of our day. I think we were going to be a top-three car. Our car drove really well in traffic and felt like it was real maneuverable as far as being able to move to different spots on the track. I felt like we could move around, where some of the other guys seemed to be more line-committed.”
If the race had resumed, Stewart said, he felt confident.
“The little changes we were making made a big difference,” he said. “Every run, we got better and better and better. Even if we went back to green, I feel like we still had a little ways to go to make it perfect.
“Steve (Addington, crew chief) was going in the right direction, no doubt. Whether it rained or didn’t rain, I felt confident we had a car capable of for sure running in the top three and had a great shot at winning.”
The win is Stewart’s 46th in Sprint Cup, tying him with pioneer driver Buck Baker for 14th on the all-time victory list.
But the bigger part of the story is that Stewart is showing mid-season form early in the year, something that hasn’t happened in his previous Cup seasons.
“It’s been nice to get off to a good start this year the way we have,” he said. “History shows in the last 13 years we haven’t had our strongest starts in the first third of the year. I’m really, really excited about the start we’ve got going.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.