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Edwards’ two tires beat Stewart’s four
by Matt Taliaferro
In Las Vegas, the hand you’re dealt doesn’t have to be great, just better than those you’re playing against. Such was the case on Sunday, when Carl Edwards outran a dominant Tony Stewart, who fell victim to a pit road penalty that dictated his strategy for the remainder of the event and ultimately doomed his chance at a win in the Kobalt Tools 400. Edwards, in turn, led the final 22 laps and cruised to a 1.2-second win at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I think Tony was the car to beat all day,” Edwards said. “That car was just lightning fast. But those guys (Stewart’s crew) took two tires with 60 or 70 laps to go, and he took off, so Bob (Osborne, crew chief) said, ‘Hey, let’s try it, let’s take two tires.’ We came in, we pitted, the guys did a great job — I barely beat Juan Montoya once we got back on the race track — so this pit stop was key. If it would have been a half-second longer we would not have won the race.”
Ah, yes — back to Stewart. As Edwards referenced, it was his miscue — or rather, his misfortune — that set the tone for the remainder of the race.
Stewart started 15th, but worked his way into the lead on lap 99 and imposed his will on the field from there, leading 124 laps until a caution on lap 151 changed the complexion of the race. During the ensuing round of pit stops, Stewart pulled a lug wrench air hose out of his stall and was issued a pass-through penalty for taking equipment outside his pit box, dropping his No. 14 Chevy out of the lead and into 27th on the restart.
When a caution on lap 195 precipitated another round of yellow-flag stops, Darian Grubb, crew chief for the No. 14 team, made the call for two tires when the majority of the field took four in an effort to gain track position. Stewart won the battle off pit road as a result, and pulled away from the field when the green waved with 66 laps remaining.
When the fuel window re-opened with 32 laps to go, Stewart again hit pit road and was forced to take four tires, while others who had taken four on the previous stop — namely Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman — took two. That relegated Stewart to third when the stops cycled through, and handicapped his track position.
“I honestly think we had the car to beat today, we just gave it away,” Stewart said. “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. Darian made a good call getting us the track position back, but it also showed everybody else that they could do it, too (take two tires), and we couldn't run two and a half runs on a set of left-side tires.”
Stewart’s assertion was accurate, as Bob Osborne, crew chief for Edwards’ No. 99 Ford, made the final two-tire stop based how the No. 14 pulled away from the pack in clean air with two tires.
“It definitely didn't hurt the decision-making process to see them (Stewart’s team) run extremely well with two tires,” Osborne said. “So yeah, I guess I was taking notes. Their car was very good regardless, and I thought our only opportunity was to leapfrog them on the racetrack and hope we were able to hold them off.”
Edwards did just that, leading the rest of the way for his second career win at LVMS. Stewart rebounded to finish second, while Montoya, Ambrose and Newman rounded out the top 5.
Stewart has been in position to win all three races thus far in the 2011 season, but has yet to close the deal. A similar two-tire stop at Phoenix ruined his chances last week when many in the field took four, and he lost his drafting partner after restarting second in a green-white-checker finish in the Daytona 500. Does he take solace in the fact that he now holds a tie for the points lead and is close to finding Victory Lane?
“I probably should, but that's not in my makeup,” Stewart said. “I mean, it kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven’t won at yet. This was a big deal today, and when you lead that many laps (163 of 267) and have a car that’s that fast and you lose it … I’m sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we’ll look back and say it was a great weekend, but man, it does not sit good right now.”
Stewart will have to wait to turn his near-misses into a victory, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit takes one week off before returning to action at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 20.