LAS VEGAS — Carl Edwards is off to the best start of his career, and he credits "a gift" from Tony Stewart for his first win of the season.
Stewart had the dominant car in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but he 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 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 led the Kobalt Tools 400 when he was penalized for leaving his pit stall with the air hose still attached to his Chevrolet. He restarted 24th on Lap 157 after the penalty, 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. Stewart, who dropped to 22nd after the four-tire stop, was unable to catch him 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 past two weeks.
Edwards believed he should have won the first two races of the season. 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 earned the pole last week at Phoenix and was certain he had the winning car before he was wrecked by Kyle Busch.
Sunday's win, Edwards' second at Las Vegas and 19th of his career, has many thinking he is a solid championship contender. He closed last season with wins in the final two races, and he is now third in Sprint Cup points, three out of the lead.
Stewart wasn't thinking about the big picture Sunday after finishing second to Edwards despite leading a race-high 163 laps.
Stewart was second on the final restart of the Daytona 500 but faded and finished 13th. He then led 59 laps in Phoenix, only to finish seventh. Though Sunday's run moved him into the lead of the 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 has yet to win a Cup race (Darlington is the other).
Juan Montoya finished third followed by Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started 33rd, wound up eighth and moved into 10th in the standings.
Las Vegas native Busch had an early tire problem while running second to Stewart, then an engine failure ended his race in 38th place.
Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton were penalized for speeding on pit road. 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.
Kurt Busch is tied with Stewart for the points lead but is listed second on a tiebreaker. Like his younger brother Kyle, Kurt 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."