LAS VEGAS — Making his second visit in six days to Victory Lane, Carl Edwards triumphantly raised the glittering gold belt he earned at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In a town known for title fights, Edwards emerged as a heavyweight contender Sunday.
"We do this to win. Winning these races is the greatest," Edwards said. "Winning a championship would be the ultimate. What we're trying to do is win the championship this year. That's our No. 1 goal."
Just three races into this new season, it's far too early to call Edwards the favorite to win the Sprint Cup title. And this win might not be controversy free: NASCAR discovered the lid was missing from his oil tank box during postrace inspection and is taking his Ford back to North Carolina for further inspection.
But in winning his second race in six days, he moved to the top of the points standings for the first time in his career — 21 points ahead of Kyle Busch.
Edwards earned it by overcoming an early pit road penalty, escaping NASCAR punishment on a second pit road mishap, then holding off a rusty Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a pair of late restarts Sunday.
Edwards, who scored his first win of the season in Monday's rain-postponed event in California, celebrated win No. 2 with his trademark backflip. Then he gleefully carried around the shiny new belt he was certain good friend John Cena, the WWE champion, would covet.
For Edwards, it seemed like a return to his 2005 form, when he finished third in the series standings.
"I think we are close to the form we were in 2005 when it seemed like a Roush Fenway car would win every week," Edwards said.
It was the sixth victory for team owner Jack Roush in 11 races at Las Vegas, and it ended Jimmie Johnson's string of three straight wins in the desert.
Edwards was penalized early in the race when one of his tires rolled away from the team during a pit stop. He then caught a break when it happened a second time, escaping a penalty because NASCAR determined the tire broke free because a television cameraman shooting from inside the box interfered with the crew members.
"When you think you didn't actually break a rule, you have to keep a level head," said crew chief Bob Osborne, who immediately climbed off the pit box to make a case against being penalized.
"I wanted to go ballistic and yell and scream and kick and punch and do whatever I had to do to get my way. But I kept a level head and NASCAR reviewed it."
With the decison to not penalize the team, Edwards remained in contention to run for the win. But two late restarts gave the competition a chance to run down his No. 99 Ford.
Kurt Busch's wreck with 11 laps to go brought out the caution, and Edwards was in front of Earnhardt on the restart with five to go. But Earnhardt appeared to spin his tires at the start, and Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon had to split his car to avoid running into him.
"I've been out of the game so long," joked Earnhardt, who hasn't consistently run up front for several years. "I ain't had a whole lot of practice out there. I looked like a tool out there."
Once past Earnhardt, Gordon and Kenseth raced side-by-side and Edwards pulled away. Then Gordon drifted into the side of Kenseth's car, starting a spin that led to Gordon slamming into the inside wall. His Chevrolet broke into tons of part and pieces, and NASCAR had to red-flag the race to clean the debris.
"It's uncharacteristic of Jeff to overdrive or make a mistake like that," said Greg Biffle, who had to avoid the wreckage.
That accident set up a two-lap sprint to the finish, but the wait time cooled Earnhardt's tires and he was unable to mount a charge on Edwards on the restart. Earnhardt's losing streak stretched to 64 races.
"The red flag just really killed us," said Earnhardt, who settled for second. "We were terrible on cold tires. It's real frustrating."
Biffle was third and was followed by the Richard Childress Racing cars of Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. Kasey Kahne was sixth, followed by David Ragan, Travis Kvapil, Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin.
Kyle Busch, who was trying to become the first driver to win from the pole at Las Vegas, struggled with adjustments to his Toyota the entire race and had to settle for 11th on his hometown track.
Johnson, the two-time defending series champion, was looking for a fourth straight win in the desert. But his team struggled the entire weekend, he fell two laps down in the race and finished 29th.
Two-time series champion Tony Stewart bruised his foot 108 laps into the race when his right front tire failed and he hit the wall for the second-straight day.
"I was kind of worried, my legs, my entire legs from my hips down were just tingling," Stewart said. "And I had pain in my lower back and that kind of scared me a little bit. I've not had my legs tingle like that before.
"I was kind of worried about, 'What's going on here?'"
He slowly climbed from his car and gingerly walked with the assistance of two emergency personnel into a waiting car that took him to the infield care center. He said the tingling sensation had improved before he left the care center, and said he still planned to participate in the Cup test scheduled for Monday and Tuesday in Phoenix.
"It's going to be a miserable next two days," he said. "I was already sore. We'll do what we've got to do the next two days."