Edwards makes it two wins in a row

Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Carl Edwards arrived here with a hot hand and, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. found out, he was not about to play it safe and fold.

Edwards charged back from an early pit-road penalty and held off Earnhardt on two late restarts Sunday to win the UAW-Dodge 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his second consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.

Edwards also won the rain-delayed race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana last week, giving his Roush Fenway Racing team two wins in the season's first three races.

"This is an amazing couple of weeks," said Edwards, 28, who also led the most laps, 86, in the 267-lap race. "I was just trying to hold off Dale at the end."

But Edwards' win came with a potential hitch: In a post-race inspection, officials found that the oil tank in Edwards No. 99 Ford was missing its lid, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said.

The car will be taken to NASCAR's research and development center in Concord, N.C., for further inspection, said Poston, who disclosed the matter after Edwards and team co-owner Jack Roush held their victory post-race news conferences.

Poston declined to speculate on why the part was missing or whether it could have fallen off.

"If there are any actions to be taken, we'll make that announcement as we normally do next week," he said.

Edwards' crew chief, Bob Osborne, declined to comment pending NASCAR's further review.

It was the ninth victory of Edwards' career and his first at Las Vegas. But Roush Fenway overall has a stellar history here, winning six of the 11 Cup races held at the speedway just north of the Strip.

The victory in front of 153,000 also gave Edwards the early series points lead, the first time he has led the standings since the Missouri native joined the series full time in 2005.

Earnhardt was second in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Edwards teammate Greg Biffle was third and Kevin Harvick fourth in a Chevy prepared by Richard Childress Racing.

"I wanted a shot at Carl, but he was just so strong," Earnhardt said. But Earnhardt, who was 40th in Fontana because of an early crash there, said that "after last week I just needed to get that kind of a [second-place] finish."

The race, which had a track-record 11 caution periods, was decided in the last three laps after Earnhardt's teammate Jeff Gordon was involved in a severe crash.

As the field took the green flag for a restart with five laps left, Edwards led Earnhardt, Kenseth and Gordon. But Earnhardt spun his tires as he accelerated, allowing Kenseth and Gordon to pass him while they moved through the first two turns of the 1.5-mile oval.

As they reached the back straightaway side by side, Kenseth and Gordon touched, causing both to spin out of control. Gordon then slammed into the inside wall with such force that the radiator of his No. 24 Chevy was sent hurtling down the pavement.

Neither driver was injured, but "that's probably the hardest I've ever hit," said Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and 15-year veteran. "I'm OK, but I'm going to be really sore tomorrow."

Gordon hit a section of wall that doesn't yet have what's known as a SAFER barrier, a so-called "soft wall" that further protects drivers by better absorbing the energy of a car crash. The softer walls are widely installed at U.S. tracks but are not universal.

"There shouldn't be gaps anywhere," Biffle said. "There should be SAFER barriers all the way around the inside and the outside of these racetracks."

Kyle Busch, who started from the pole position, led 56 laps early in the race but faded to finish 11th, extending the history of no pole-sitter winning in Las Vegas.

The race ended abruptly, and painfully, for two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, a teammate of Busch's at Joe Gibbs Racing who also has never won in Las Vegas.

After Stewart had charged into the top five from his 23rd starting spot, his No. 20 Toyota Camry apparently cut a right front tire and slammed into the wall on Lap 107.

"That's the hardest [hit] I've taken in a long time," said Stewart, 36, after he was evaluated at the infield care center and released. Stewart said he still planned to test today at Phoenix International Raceway as scheduled.

Reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who was trying for his fourth consecutive victory at Las Vegas, instead had a race to forget. The El Cajon, Calif., native struggled all race, seldom cracked the top 25 and finished two laps down in 29th place.

After two days of balmy weather for practice and qualifying, Sunday brought temperatures in the low 60s and gusty winds from the north that caused a stiff head wind for the drivers on the back straightaway.

In addition, this was the first time that NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow was used at Las Vegas, and many teams had trouble with the handling of their cars. At one point of the race, more than half the 43-car field was one lap down to the leaders.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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