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Originally published Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 6:16 PM

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'Gift' lifts Carl Edwards to title in Las Vegas

Tony Stewart has fastest car at Las Vegas, but pit road penalty proves costly

LAS VEGAS — Carl Edwards is off to the best start of his career, and credits "a gift" from Tony Stewart for his first victory of the season.

Stewart had the dominant car Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but had to shuffle his strategy when a penalty on pit road crippled his chances. Edwards crew chief Bob Osborne took note of what Stewart was doing, then used it to get his own driver into Victory Lane.

"That car was spectacular. He did a really good job driving it, too," Edwards said of Stewart. "That was really a gift for us for him to have that penalty. It may have been the difference in the race there."

Stewart was the leader when he was penalized for leaving his pit stall with the air hose still attached to his Chevrolet. Crew chief Darian Grubb had to call for a two-tire stop to get Stewart back into the lead, the entire field saw it work, and Stewart was backed into a corner.

He had to take four tires on his final stop, most everyone else took two, and the longer time spent on pit road shuffled him too far back to make a return to the front.

Edwards, in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford, pulled away for the victory, while Stewart, who dropped to 22nd after the four-tire stop, was unable to chase him down and finished second.

"We had the fastest thing on the planet today and we just gave it away," Stewart said. "It kills me to throw away a race like that."

That's how Edwards felt the past two weeks.

Edwards said he believed he should have won the first two races of the season, and had a hard time shaking the disappointment of not getting to Victory Lane before he arrived at Las Vegas. He was second in the season-opening Daytona 500, then was certain he had the winning car last week at Phoenix before he was wrecked by Kyle Busch.

The victory Sunday, his second victory at Las Vegas and the 19th of his career, now has many thinking Edwards is a solid championship contender. He closed last season with victories in the final two races, and is now third in the Sprint Cup Series standings, three points out of the lead.

"This is the best start to a season that I've ever had," he said. "You know, Daytona could have gone any way. But Phoenix, that was a very strong performance from everyone. They had a little bit of bad luck there. Today, I felt like we had a solid top-three car all day. That's three different types of racetracks with success on all three, so I'm really excited."

Juan Pablo Montoya finished third and was followed by Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers.

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Kasey Kahne of Enumclaw finished 14th to earn $127,083 while Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., took 28th to win $101,150.

NOTES

• Quaker State has agreed to become the title sponsor of the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky. The Quaker State 400 on July 9 will mark the first new track to join the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule since 2001.

Sebastien Loeb of France beat Finnish driver Mikko Hirvonen to win the Mexican Rally for the fifth time. Loeb, a seven-time world champion, moved into first after Citroen teammate Sebastien Ogier crashed out in the first of the final day's three stages.

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