LAS VEGAS — Making his second visit in six days to Victory Lane, Carl Edwards raised the glittering gold belt he earned at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In a town known for title fights, Edwards emerged as a heavyweight contender Sunday.
"We do this to win. Winning these races is the greatest," Edwards said. "Winning a championship would be the ultimate. What we're trying to do is win the championship this year. That's our No. 1 goal."
Just three races into this new season, it's far too early to call Edwards the favorite to win the Sprint Cup title. And this win might not be controversy free: NASCAR discovered the lid was missing from his oil tank box during postrace inspection and is taking the parts from his Ford back to North Carolina for further inspection.
Five Nationwide Series crew chiefs were suspended six races each and fined $15,000, and their drivers were docked 25 points last month because their lids were loose during an inspection.
It might mean Edwards' first visit atop the points standings will be short. He holds a 21-point lead over previous leader Kyle Busch.
Edwards overcame an early pit road penalty, escaping NASCAR punishment on a second pit road mishap, then held off a rusty Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a pair of late restarts in the UAW Dodge 400.
Edwards was penalized early when a tire rolled away from the team during a pit stop. He caught a break when it happened a second time; NASCAR determined the tire broke free because a television cameraman shooting from inside the box interfered with the crew members, so no penalty was assessed.
"When you think you didn't actually break a rule, you have to keep a level head," said crew chief Bob Osborne, who climbed off the pit box to make a case against being penalized.
Two late restarts gave the competition a chance to run down Edwards' No. 99 Ford.
Kurt Busch's wreck with 11 laps to go brought out the caution, and Edwards led Earnhardt on the restart with five to go. But Earnhardt appeared to spin his tires at the start, and Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon had to split his car to avoid him.
"I've been out of the game so long," joked Earnhardt, who hasn't consistently run up front for several years. "I ain't had a whole lot of practice out there."
Once past Earnhardt, Gordon and Kenseth raced side-by-side as Edwards pulled away. Then Gordon drifted into the side of Kenseth's car, starting a spin that led to Gordon's Chevrolet slamming the inside wall. NASCAR red-flagged the race briefly to clean the debris.
Gordon's spinning Chevrolet went headfirst into the wall for the "hardest I've ever hit," but he was okay, saying he expected to be sore today.
"It's uncharacteristic of Jeff to overdrive or make a mistake like that," said Greg Biffle, who had to avoid the wreckage.
That accident set up a two-lap sprint to the finish, but the wait cooled Earnhardt's tires and he could not mount a charge.
"The red flag just really killed us," said Earnhardt, who settled for second. "We were terrible on cold tires. It's real frustrating."
Kyle Busch, trying to become the first driver to win from the pole at Las Vegas, struggled with adjustments to his Toyota and finished 11th on his hometown track.
Two-time defending series champ Jimmie Johnson sought a fourth straight win in the desert. But he fell two laps down and finished 29th.