The great thing about NASCAR Sprint Cup races is that the winner isn't always the driver and team with the fastest car, but rather the driver and team that put themselves in a position to capitalize when the team with the fastest car falter.
That was the case Sunday, as a pit-road miscue by Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team cleared the way for Carl Edwards and his No. 99 team to win the Kobalt Tools 400, their first victory of the 2011 season and their third in the last five Sprint Cup races, dating back to 2010.
Stewart, who led 163 of the 267 laps, lost the lead on lap 151 when he was penalized for tugging an air hose out of his pit box. The hose, according to crew chief Darian Grubb, hooked itself around the left-rear quarter panel of Stewart's Chevrolet as he was pulling away. The crew was unable to remove the hose before it slid out of the pit box, forcing Stewart to the rear of the field.
He would regain the lead by taking two tires on his next pit stop and pull well ahead of second-place Juan Pablo Montoya, but on his final pit stop, Grubb had to put four tires on the car while most of his rivals took two.
Those included Edwards, who grabbed the lead on the final cycle of stops and held off a hard-charging Stewart to win by just over one second. It is Edwards' second top-five finish in three races this year and came on the heels of a bitter disappointment in Phoenix, where he crashed after contact with Kyle Busch after starting from the pole. He finished second to Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, and climbed nine positions in the standings with his victory to third.
Montoya finished third, followed by Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman. The rest of the top 10 was filled out by Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, and Brian Vickers. Pole sitter Matt Kenseth cut a tire early and finished 11th. Jimmie Johnson struggled most of the race, falling off the lead lap at one point. He eventually worked his way into the top ten, but had faded to 16th by the race's conclusion.
Last week's Phoenix winner Jeff Gordon blew a tire and slammed the turn four wall on lap 194, setting up the caution where Stewart took only two tires, dooming the Hendrick Motorsports driver to a 36th place finish.
Perhaps the worst day belonged to Kyle Busch, who entered the day as the point leader. The Las Vegas native cut a tire and brushed the wall while running second to Stewart, then grenaded an engine only 107 laps into the event. He finished 38th and dropped from first to 14th in the point standings.
Stewart and Kurt Busch are tied for the point lead with 113 points each. Edwards and Montoya are tied for third, seven points back, while Newman rounds out the top-five, ten points back of Busch and Stewart, his teammate and car owner.
Johnson, the five-time defending series champion, has just one top-ten in his first three races this season and sits 12th in points, four points behind teammates Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, who are tied for tenth place and the last point position that qualifies a driver for the Chase.
The point lead was of little consolation to Stewart, who remarked that "Second sucks" in his post-race interview on FOX. The fiery veteran was attempting to win at Las Vegas for the first time in his 20th start at the track, including four NASCAR Nationwide and three IZOD IndyCar Series races, and had the dominant car on the day.
Edwards, however, ran amongst the top-five all race and was in position to capitalize on the miscue by Stewart's team. The reward was his 19th career victory and the seventh for team owner Jack Roush in 14 Sprint Cup races at Las Vegas.