A year ago Carl Edwards'' No. 99 Chevrolet was in Victory Lane celebrating the win in the Kobalt Tools 400 Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Speedway. Little did he know at the time that it would be his only win in 36 races in NASCAR's top racing series in 2011.
It wasn't as if Edwards had a bad 2011 season, however. Far from it. The Columbia, Mo., native finished in the top five 19 times last season and was among the top-10 finishers on 24 occasions. In the end, though, it was his absence of race wins that cost him the Sprint Cup championship last season in a tiebreaker with Tony Stewart, whose five wins in the ten season-ending Chase for the Cup races trumped Edwards' one victory for the season.
On Sunday, Edwards was out to defend his race win at Las Vegas from last year. Although he recorded another top-five finish in Sunday's Cup race, his first this season (to go with a top-10 finish at Daytona and 17th last week at Phoenix), his chief nemesis the past dozen races, Tony Stewart, had the better car and the better finish at Las Vegas. Stewart led for almost half the race, 127 laps in total, in capturing his first win of the year and his first at Las Vegas Speedway.
Stewart, who has won four of the last four races held at 1.5-mile tracks such as Las Vegas Speedway, was the runner up last year in this race to Edwards. The victory gives the man they call "Smoke" six wins in his past 13 races. It is his first win at Las Vegas, but his 15th career win at a 1.5-mile oval, which ties him for second place all-time with Jeff Gordon.
Jimmie Johnson followed Stewart to the checkered flag, with Edwards' Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle finishing third, and Stewart's teammate Ryan Newman sneaking into fourth place just ahead of Edwards.
I can't tell you how many times Edwards and Clint Bowyer, from across the state line on the Kansas side (Emporia), have finished back to back in Sprint Cup races. I can count at least eight-to-ten times over the past two years alone, and they did it again on Sunday. Bowyer started in the fifth position on the grid and finished one spot back, just behind Edwards.
Coming into the 2012 season, Edwards and his race team had said one of the areas they wanted to improve on was in qualifying. They won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500, but have fallen off the pace considerably the past two weeks. Edwards qualified 24th last week at Phoenix and 21st for Sunday's race in Las Vegas.
With four laps remaining in the scheduled 267-lap event at Las Vegas Speedway, Roush-Fenway had three cars in the top five. Matt Kenseth, Biffle and Edwards were running three wide when Kenseth's No. 17 car bounced off the outer barrier on the backstretch.
Here was Edwards' explanation of what happened, as reported by the motor racing information service PaddockTalk.com: "Matt spun his tires a little bit and I got a run on him, and then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him and he ended up getting wrecked," Edwards said. "I feel terrible...in the end it was nice having three (Roush-Fenway) cars up there with a shot at the win."
Kenseth fell out of the top five after hitting the wall and dropped back to 17th to finish the race.
Biffle holds the lead in the drivers' standings through three Sprint Cup races. Kevin Harvick is 10 points back, Denny Hamlin is third, 12 points behind the leader, followed by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (-18), and Kenseth and Edwards (both -23) are tied for fifth. Bowyer and Newman are tied for 13th, 39 points back of Biffle.
Next weekend will be a very different form of racing as the Sprint Cup field moves from an intermediate track to a short track at the Bristol Motor Speedway. The layout at Bristol is only a half-mile, which will make for some very tight and fast racing conditions.
Edwards followed up his win at Las Vegas a year ago with a second-place finish at Bristol. Bowyer wasn't so fortunate, however. Driving for Richard Childress Racing then, the Kansas native encountered engine trouble late in the race and ended up 34th in the 43-car field.
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