LAS VEGAS | Carl Edwards is off to the best start of his career and credits “a gift” from Tony Stewart for his first win of the season.
Stewart had the dominant car Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway but had to shuffle his strategy when a penalty on pit road crippled his chances. Edwards crew chief Bob Osborne took note of what Stewart was doing, then used it to get his own driver into Victory Lane.
“That car was spectacular. He did a really good job driving it, too,” Edwards said of Stewart. “That was really a gift for us for him to have that penalty. It may have been the difference in the race there.”
Stewart was the leader when he was penalized for leaving his pit stall with the air hose still attached to his Chevrolet. Crew chief Darian Grubb had to call for a two-tire stop to get Stewart back into the lead, the entire field saw it work, and Stewart was backed into a corner.
He had to take four tires on his final stop, most everyone else took two, and the longer time spent on pit road shuffled him too far back to make it back to the front.
Edwards, in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford, pulled away for the win, while Stewart, who dropped to 22nd after the four-tire stop, was unable to chase him down and finished second.
“We had the fastest thing on the planet today and we just gave it away,” Stewart said. “It kills me to throw away a race like that.”
That’s how Edwards felt the last two weeks.
The Columbia native believed he should have won the first two races of the season and had a hard time shaking the disappointment of not getting to Victory Lane before he arrived at Las Vegas. He was second in the season-opening Daytona 500 — he called winner Trevor Bayne to ask what he could have done differently on the last lap — then was certain he had the race-winning car last week at Phoenix before he was wrecked by Kyle Busch.
The win on Sunday, his second victory at Las Vegas and the 19th of his career, now has many thinking Edwards is a solid championship contender. He closed last season with wins in the final two races, and is now third in the Sprint Cup Series standings, three points out of the lead.
“This is the best start to a season that I’ve ever had,” he said. “You know, Daytona could have gone any way. But Phoenix, that was a very strong performance from everyone. They had a little bit of bad luck there. Today, I felt like we had a solid top three car all day. That’s three different types of racetracks with success on all three, so I’m really excited.”
Stewart wasn’t thinking about the big picture Sunday after finishing second to Edwards despite leading a race-high 163 laps.
Stewart was in second place on the final restart of the Daytona 500, but faded to a 13th-place finish. He then led 59 laps last week in Phoenix, only to finish seventh. Although Sunday’s run moved him into the lead of the Sprint Cup Series standings, he was unable to take much solace in knowing he had cars capable of winning the first three races of the season.
“That’s not in my makeup,” said Stewart, who was trying to cross Las Vegas off the list of only two active tracks where he’s yet to win a Cup race.
“This was a big deal today, and when you lead that many laps and have a car that’s that fast and you lose it — I’m sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we’ll look back and say it was a great weekend, but just, man, it does not sit good right now.”
Juan Pablo Montoya finished third and was followed by Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. Denny Hamlin was seventh, while Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers rounded out the top 10.
It was a rough day for most of the contenders, starting with pole-sitter Matt Kenseth’s flat tire early in the race.
Las Vegas native Kyle Busch also had an early tire problem while running second to Stewart, and an engine failure ended his race and sent him to a 38th-place finish. Greg Biffle had a car capable of winning until a fuel issue took him out of contention.
Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton were both penalized for speeding on pit road, and on the same stop, Stewart was flagged for taking equipment out of his pit box.
“I don’t know what happened on the pit stop there, but we had a miscue and had a penalty and had to go to the back, and unfortunately it kind of dealt our cards for us,” Stewart said. “Darian made a good (two-tire) call getting us the track position back, but it also showed everybody else that they could do it, too.”
Jeff Gordon, the winner last week in Phoenix, had a tire problem while running 10th and crashed his car. He finished 36th.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting to blow a tire like that,” Gordon said. “There was no sign whatsoever.”
Kurt Busch is tied with Stewart, but is listed as second in the standings based on tiebreaker criteria. Like his younger brother, Kyle, he was disappointed to leave Las Vegas without a win.
“We gave it all we had,” he said. “We wanted to win this thing, for sure. I came up just a little bit short in my hometown.”