Setting off from pole position after setting a record time and topping the practice time sheets, Matt Kenseth would have been forgiven for expecting a strong run at the front at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but unfortunately after just three laps he was overtaken by Greg Biffle and never saw the front again all afternoon.
Instead, after Kenseth was among those to pit under the first caution on lap 8 for a spin in turn 4 by Robby Gordon, he found himself with a tyre going down immediately after the restart. He had to return to pit road under green for a new set of tyres, which put him a lap down for much of the rest of the race.
Jeff Gordon had taken the lead during the pit stops but Tony Stewart was already surging. Smoke was in front by the time Andy Lally went for a spin on lap 15, after getting a tap from David Gilliland, which brought out the second caution. Robby Gordon was the recipient of the lucky dog/free pass, which meant that Kenseth was still off the lead lap - and with the race running caution-free for the next 78 laps despite a close call on lap 42 when Jamie McMurray and Brad Keselowski made contact, he was doomed to stay there a while.
The extended green flag racing gave Tony Stewart the chance to pull away from everyone else on the track into a clear lead, and he was revelling in the fresh air out front. Among those squabbling over second place were Kurt Busch, Juan Montoya and Greg Biffle; Jeff Gordon had slid back and was having a fight with Carl Edwards over eight place by the time the cars lined up for their second round of pit stops - under green this time - starting around lap 50. The only driver to encounter problems was Trevor Bayne, who was handed a drive-thru penalty for speeding and went a lap down. Stewart lost the lead during the staggered round of stops but by lap 62 was back in front and in control ahead of Kurt Busch.
As the race hit lap 70, it was Kurt's brother Kyle who was finding the speed: he'd moved up into second place and for the first time Stewart had a challenger gunning for him, the two of them managing to separate themselves from the field and managing to put Jimmie Johnson a lap down as they hit lap 90. Kyle's challenge was fading and Stewart's lead was building - up to 6.5s - when the #18 suddenly blew a tyre and sent Kyle into the wall on lap 96, bringing out the third caution of the afternoon and allowing the drivers a welcome respite and a chance for relatively more relaxed visits to pit lane. The only man less than happy about this turn of events other than the crumpled Kyle Busch was Tony Stewart, whose extended lead was now history.
The restart on lap 101 was shortlived as Kurt Busch - in third behind Stewart and Montoya - managed to lose the backend of the #22 and go into a spin that left him sideways down pit lane; further back, Kasey Kahne checked up as the spin unfolded and found himself rammed from behind by an inattentive David Ragan, which sent Kayne spinning in a copy-cat accident to Kurt's. At least the rapid yellow was to Jimmie Johnson's benefit, the free pass putting him back on the lead lap.
The next attempt at a restart was scarcely any more successful, with the #18 of Kyle Busch suddenly starting to spew smoke and flames presumably as a result of damage sustained in the earlier accident against the wall; and Jamie McMurray also made a trip into the wall after slight contact with Trevor Bayne. Neither McMurray nor Bayne were badly damaged, but Kyle Busch was in the garage and out of the race with his terminal troubles.
Finally we were back to racing on lap 115 as Stewart led Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards to the green flag. The three of them broke away until Biffle strangely ran out of fuel on lap 146 and had to coast into pit road, the car clearly having issues with fuel supply. Over the team radio, Biffle was heard to mutter to his pit crew chief Greg Erwin "So much for the warning light Erwin," to which Erwin responded: "In development." Biffle dryly responded with a "That's good." But meanwhile, upfront Stewart was clearly in charge throughout and able to toy with Carl Edwards as the two of them pulled away from the rest of the field. Surely the race was in Stewart's back pocket - what could possibly go wrong?
The sixth yellow was on lap 149 after David Gilliland got a cut tyre and made heavy impact with the wall. That allowed another round of pit stops under caution, and it was here that the turning point of the race happened: a member of the pit team hadn't stowed an air hose properly, and when Stewart pulled out the #14 dragged the hose out of the pit box - a definite no-no. Stewart was handed a drive-thru penalty and sent to the back of the lead lap.
"It kills me to throw a race away like that," Stewart said. "When you lead that many laps and have a car that's that fast and you lose it... 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."
That left Edwards up at the front of the race for the restart on lap 156, followed by Martin Truex Jr, Juan Montoya and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Edwards knew he'd been handed a golden opportunity, and went for it. Further back, cars on the move included Marcos Ambrose working his way back into the top five, Denny Hamlin up into the top 12 having started at the back because of an enforced overnight engine change, and Jimmie Johnson finding his groove and taking 9th from Jeff Gordon. And of course, further back Tony Stewart was still incredibly fast and determined to make his way back to the front and show Edwards who was boss.
It was Jeff Gordon who ended up into the wall in turn 4 after suffering a cut tyre on lap 194 that brought out the seventh caution of the race; and finally, Matt Kenseth was in the right place at the right time, getting the free pass back onto the lead lap at long last.
And Stewart was back in the lead: gambling on two tyres only, it shot him 14 places up the running order to the front of the field ahead of Juan Montoya, Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards who had all taken the extra time to take four tyres on board. Immediately the green flag came out on lap 202, Stewart was able to shoot off into the distance and was two and a half seconds ahead within a dizen laps of green flag running. The gamble, it seemed, had paid off...
...At least, until lap 234. That's when Stewart's next pit stop came due, and there were no convenient cautions when he needed one so it was to be a green flag pit stop. Having taken on only two tyres last time around, Stewart had no choice this time but to change the two-stint tyres as well making it a full set of four, and the longer cost him badly in time - a full 13.7s in his pit box. The other drivers who had taken on four tyres at the previous stop - including Edwards, Truex, Montoya and Ambrose - now had the freedom to take only two this time around, and as a result Stewart was back at the bottom of the top ten once the pit stops had cycled through, and with only 24 laps left to run before the chequered flag.
He almost did it. The speed of the #14 was undeniable and he was back up to third by lap 245. He found Juan Montoya a tougher crack to nut and it wasn't until lap 263 that he was finally able to reclaim second, just four laps before the end. Even though Edwards was having to battle with lapped traffic, there simply wasn't enough time for Stewart to slash the lead Edwards had built up.
After having been denied a strong run last week in Phoenix because of an early-race collision with Kyle Busch, Edwards was finally back in victory lane and able to show off that impressive back flip off the side door of the #99 as he celebrated his second Vegas win and his third win in the five most recent Sprint Cup outing.
In the Sprint Cup points standings
, it puts Edwards up nine places in 3rd, just behind co-leaders Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch 7pts ahead. Other big risers in the points were Martin Truex Jr. (up nine places to 7th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (up seven to 10th) and Marcos Ambrose (up ten to 17th.)
The big losers of the week were Kyle Busch (down from the lead to 14th place), Jeff Gordon (down fourteen places to 19th) and David Gilliland (down eleven to 21st) after their painful hits against the wall that did terminal damage to their cars.
NASCAR Sprint Cup takes a breather next week, and returns for the Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 20.Race results
1. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 267 laps Running (47/1 pts)
2. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet + 1.246s Running (44/2 pts)
3. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet + 2.465s Running (42/1 pts)
4. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford + 2.99s Running (41/1 pts)
5. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet + 6.271s Running (39/0 pts)
6. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota + 6.416s Running (39/1 pts)
7. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota + 9.003s Running (37/0 pts)
8. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet + 10.648s Running (36/0 pts)
9. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge + 12.321s Running (36/1 pts)
10. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota + 14.342s Running (34/0 pts)
11. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford + 14.607s Running (34/1 pts)
12. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet + 15.690s Running (33/1 pts)
13. #0 David Reutimann Toyota + 16.184s Running (32/1 pts)
14. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota + 17.488s Running (30/0 pts)
15. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet + 18.481s Running (30/1 pts)
16. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet + 20.445s Running (28/0 pts)
17. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet + 21.214s Running (28/1 pts)
18. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet + 21.991s Running (26/0 pts)
19. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford + 24.966s Running (25/0 pts)
20. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford + 25.852s Running (0pts)
21. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet + 36.345s Running (23/0 pts)
22. #6 David Ragan Ford + 26.788s Running (22/0 pts)
23. #20 Joey Logano Toyota + s Running (21/0 pts)
24. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota + s Running (20/0 pts)
25. #13 Casey Mears Toyota + s Running (19/0 pts)
26. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 265 laps Running (18/0 pts)
27. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 264 laps Running (17/0 pts)
28. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 264 laps Running (17/1 pts)
29. #32 Mike Skinner Ford 262 laps Running (0pts)
30. #9 Bill Elliott Chevrolet 262 laps Running (14/0 pts)
31. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 261 laps Running (13/0 pts)
32. #71 Andy Lally * Chevrolet 261 laps Running (12/0 pts)
33. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 261 laps Running (0pts)
34. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 260 laps Running (11/1 pts)
35. #37 Tony Raines Ford 258 laps Running (9/0 pts)
36. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 193 laps Running (9/1 pts)
37. #34 David Gilliland Ford 147 laps Running (7/0 pts)
38. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 107 laps Out of Race (6/0 pts)
39. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 77 laps Out of Race (5/0 pts)
40. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 45 laps In Pit (4/0 pts)
41. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 41 laps In Pit (3/0 pts)
42. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 34 laps In Pit (0pts)
43. #60 Landon Cassill Toyota 32 laps In Pit (0pts)