Continuing his early season momentum, Carl Edwards was able to score his first win of the 2011 season Sunday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Edwards took the lead from Tony Stewart after the final round of green flag pit stops cycled through and never looked back.

“It is unreal,” Edwards said. “When you are a kid you dream about this and how cool it would be to go to Vegas and fly a bunch of women there in a private plane and race cars and I did it. I brought my mom, my mother-in-law and my daughter and we came here and raced and I am having a blast.”

The win comes a week after having one of the best cars in Phoenix, only to be caught up in an incident with Kyle Busch. Instead of contending for the win, Edwards was forced to the garage and finished 28th. Knowing he had the car to beat, the disappointment in Phoenix made Sunday’s victory even sweeter.

“It means a lot coming off of Phoenix,” he said. “I went home last week and I had no clue. I just didn’t know how things were going to go from there. You only don’t get a good race car like that very often, but we had another one today.”

While Edwards had a good race car, he certainly did not have the best. That honor went to runner-up Tony Stewart – who was gunning for his first career victory at Las Vegas, one of only two tracks he has yet to win at.

Leading 163 of the 267 laps, Stewart dominated the day but was forced to overcome a pit road penalty that mired him deep in the pack just over 150 laps into the race. Entering the pits the leader, the rear air hose was caught on the back of Stewart’s car as he drove away, thus drawing a penalty from NASCAR.

With track position and clean air such advantages, Stewart and crew chief Darian Grubb knew it would take a Las Vegas-style gamble if they wanted to win big. When last week’s winner Jeff Gordon brought out the seventh caution of the day on Lap 194, the No. 14 team took their chances on pit road by changing only two tires, gaining 14 spots and giving them the race lead.

Continuing to pull away with a fast car it appeared the gamble had paid off. Yet, when the leaders made their final stops of the day under green flag conditions, Stewart was forced to take four tires, while Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya took only two.

That extra time on pit road allowed Edwards to take the lead and pull away from the battle for second between Stewart, Montoya and a fast-approaching Marcos Ambrose.

After Edwards cruised to victory, Stewart called to his team saying, “I want you guys to explain to me how we lost this race today.”

“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, and we couldn’t run two and a half runs on a set of left side tires. Just shot ourselves in the foot two weeks in a row now.”

Despite the disappointment, Stewart’s second-place run moved him to first in the points standings heading into the first off-weekend of the season. That news did little to calm the visibly frustrated driver after the race.

“It kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place we haven’t won at yet,” he said. “This was a big deal today, and when you lead that many laps and have a car that’s that fast and you lose it, you    I’m sure tomorrow when the emotion dies down we’ll look back and say it was a great weekend, but just man, it does not sit good right now.”

For Edwards and his Roush Fenway Racing team, on the other hand, things continue to go their way. In the last five races (including the final two events of 2010), Edwards has three wins and four top-2 finishes. Sitting third in the standings, Edwards are beginning to focus in on the championship – just three races into the season.

While he was not quite ready to talk championship just yet, team owner Jack Roush knows how well things are going thus far in 2011, saying, “I feel the stars are lining up.”

“It’s way too early for us to start thinking championship,” Roush said. “I encouraged everybody to think about…one of the two races before Homestead in the fall to make the same amount of risk and to be as conservative as we might be if [the championship] was within our grasp. But we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball; we can’t make a misstep, we can’t squander the opportunities now that we’re running better than we did last year. But it certainly feels more like 2008, even better.”

This is the earliest in the year Edwards has been to Victory Lane since he won this race in 2008. That year, Edwards and his No. 99 team went on to win nine races and was runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase. Three years later, Edwards says this is “the best start to a season that I’ve ever had” and explained he is in a better position to win the championship.

“I feel like I have a better understanding of how the sport works, and I think that I’m more prepared to use these fast race cars and do a better job to try to win this championship,” he said. “It’s something that Jack [Roush] and I have talked a lot about over the years. You know, there is definitely a process to becoming the best you can be at this level because all the guys are so savvy. So I feel like I’m in a better position now than I was three years ago to get all the points we can and all the wins we can this year.”

Although early in the season, the points battle has been shaken up by strong runs by unexpected drivers and struggles by some of those expected to contend. Names like Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger and Dale Earnhardt are solidly in the top-10 in points after three races, while Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton – all considered contenders coming into the season – leave Las Vegas 30th, 31st and 32nd in the points respectively.

“A lot of people knock the new points system saying they didn’t put enough emphasis on winning,” Edwards pointed out. “But when you look at it from the wild card perspective, the bonus points in the Chase, those two things alone make winning extremely important right now.”

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