FONTANA, Calif. — "Smoke" finally got his win in California. Jimmie Johnson could be ready to smoke the field again.
Tony Stewart pulled away from Johnson on a late restart Sunday to win at Auto Club Speedway for the first time in 19 tries, and the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion left with a bigger points lead.
Johnson finished third after a late pass by Clint Bowyer and has a 36-point lead over Denny Hamlin with six races left.
"Great day overall," Johnson said after the Pepsi Max 400. "We certainly wanted to be in Victory Lane, but if can finish in the top three week in and week out, you're going to have a shot."
Stewart was well back in the Chase for the Championship after running out of fuel while leading late at Loudon and struggling at Dover. He had a good showing last week at Kansas, finishing fourth, but still entered this weekend 10th in points, 127 behind Johnson.
Stewart started 22nd but was fifth by the race's midpoint, took the lead with 51 laps left and snagged it back after briefly falling behind Juan Montoya.
In the lead again late, Stewart opted not to pit under yellow and pulled away from Johnson on the restart with two laps left.
"We're doing everything we can," said Stewart, who moved up to fifth, 107 points behind Johnson. "We're going to need some help, but we're doing everything we can do."
Bowyer had a solid day in his first race without suspended crew chief Shane Wilson. NASCAR upheld his team's 150-point penalty but dropped Wilson's suspension from six to four races for failing inspection after the New Hampshire race. With Scott Miller calling the pit shots, Bowyer worked his way up from the 13th starting position.
He wasn't the only Chase driver to rally.
Kevin Harvick was seventh and remained third in the Chase. Hamlin was eighth after starting at the back because of a new transmission. Jeff Gordon overcame a late speeding penalty on pit road to finish ninth and move up to fourth.
"A little bit frustrated, but all in all it's a decent day," said Hamlin, who finished eighth. "Can't be too disappointed, especially from where we started."
It wasn't such a good day for several other Chase drivers.
Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards all had their chances dented by engine troubles, and Matt Kenseth finished a disappointing 30th. Kurt Busch also was knocked out by a late crash and finished 21st. None of those five drivers are closer than 140 points.
"That shows how fast things can change out there," Kurt Busch said.
Brother Kyle finished 35th and is ninth in points, 187 out. He had a blunt assessment of his title chances: "It's over."
Johnson had won four of his previous six starts at Fontana, including the past three fall races. This time there was no win, nor even second, yet Johnson still built on his points lead.
"We … have tried to be smart about things and have the company motto to be in the top five," he said. "The whole thought process of being in the top five was just to kind of have everybody stay calm and in control."
ALL BETTER NOW: The Kyle Busch-David Reutimann feud came to a quiet truce as the drivers met privately Friday night after qualifying and apparently cleared the air — even after Busch called the Zephyrhills native an expletive during a media session.