7 March 2011
Edwards wins after Stewart's pit stop stumble
Carl Edwards won the third Sprint Cup series race of 2011, after Tony Stewart - who dominated much of the race - was made to suffer for a mid-race fumble by his pit crew.
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.
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