By Jarrod Breeze, NASCAR.COM
March 06, 2011 8:58 PM, EST
type size: + - LAS VEGAS -- Leaving Las Vegas the Sprint Cup Series points leader -- albeit in tiebreaker fashion -- was of little consolation Sunday afternoon for Tony Stewart, the victim of lady luck's cruel fate in the Kobalt Tools 400.
Only Stewart's misfortune didn't happen in one of the Strip's many casino pits, rather in the pits at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, located a few miles north of the city's famous -- or infamous -- gambling sector. It was there when a wrench was thrown into the mix.
It kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven't won at yet.
-- TONY STEWARTStewart was rolling along and led 127 of the race's first 150 laps when he pitted. But when he started out of his pit box, the air wrench was still attached and he was forced to serve a pass-through penalty for dragging equipment that put him on the tail end of the lead lap.
"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," said Stewart, Vegas pun unintended as he was in no joking mood.
However, race winner Carl Edwards got a big laugh when he sympathized for Stewart.
"I felt for him as much as I could as a competitor," he said. "That was really a gift for us for him to have that penalty. And in the end it put him a position where he had to take two to get to the lead and had to take four when we took two. So it may have been the difference in the race there."
Stewart was able to eventually get back to the front when a two-tire stop on what would be the race's final caution put Stewart in the lead when the racing went green on Lap 202. He began to pull away again -- opening more than a 4-second advantage -- but by then he had shown his cards. When Stewart opted for a four-tire stop during a final round of green-flag stops, Carl Edwards took two.
"It showed everybody else that they could do it, too, and we couldn't run two-and-a-half runs on a set of left-side tires," Stewart said. "I honestly think we had the car to beat [Sunday], we just gave it away. The fastest thing on the planet and gave it away."
When it comes to pit road, however, there's more than just being fast.
"I didn't know exactly what the penalty was, but I knew and my guys knew that those kinds of things can just ruin your day. Even if you don't have the fastest pit stop, we always try to do everything we can not to get penalties, but it's tough," Edwards said.
Stewart, who led a race-high 163 laps, moved into a first-place tie with Kurt Busch in the standings, each with 113 points. He's recognized as the leader based on his runner-up finish at Vegas (tie broken by highest finish of the season; Busch's best is a fifth at Daytona).
Yet Stewart's solid start was of little consolation.
"Second sucks," Stewart said.
He felt he should have finished better than seventh last week at Phoenix, and despite scoring his eighth top-10 in 13 races at Vegas, a victory there remains elusive; Vegas is one of two active tracks (Darlington being the other) at which Stewart has yet to win.
"It kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven't won at yet," Stewart said. "This was a big deal [Sunday], and when you lead that many laps and have a car that's that fast and you lose it, you ... I'm sure [Monday] when the emotion dies down we'll look back and say it was a great weekend, but it does not sit good right now."