Stewart and crew blew this one

LAS VEGAS -- They had the field covered, they blew it, they got it back, they lost it again.

Tony Stewart still is trying to figure out what happened to him and his team.

"Somebody will have to explain to me how we lost this race today when we get done here," Stewart said on his radio moments after finishing second.

Carl Edwards and the No. 99 Ford team didn't need anyone to tell them how they won the Kobalt Tools 400. They were paying attention on the big gamble that worked -- temporarily -- by Stewart's team.

Stewart had an unbeatable car Sunday, or so it seemed. He had the show all to himself. But a pit road mistake (a tangled air hose that left the pit box with the car) brought a penalty and dropped Stewart from first to 23rd with 110 laps to go.

He moved up to 14th before crew chief Darian Grubb played the Vegas game and rolled the dice. They changed only left-side tires under a caution.

Stewart restarted first in what looked to be a foolhardy move. Going with two tires didn't work for Stewart last week at Phoenix. It didn't work for Jeff Gordon last year here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It worked to perfection for Stewart with 66 laps to go. He was long gone, building a 4.5-second lead.

"I don't think it mattered what we did [with tires]," Stewart said. "We had a really balanced car."

Juan Pablo Montoya noticed. Montoya had a strong car, also, but Stewart easily passed him for second in the final laps.

"Tony's car was so good he [could] pass anyone anywhere," Montoya said.

Only one problem. Everybody had to pit for fuel one last time. Stewart's team opted for four tires this time. It didn't have much choice.

"We couldn't go two and a half runs on [the same] left-side tires," Stewart said. "That was the cards that were dealt us after the miscue in the pits."

Edwards, however, was able to play a different hand. Having taken four tires earlier, the 99 team went with a two-tire stop at the end.

"We showed them they could do it, too," Stewart said.

Bob Osborne, Edwards' crew chief, said he was taking notes when two tires worked for Stewart.

"It didn't hurt our decision process, that's for sure," Osborne said. "We saw they ran extremely well on two [fresh] tires, but they also ran well on four tires. So I thought our only option to win was to leapfrog them [on track position with a two-tire stop] and hope we could hold them off."

It moved Edwards to the front, and just like Stewart earlier, he took off. Stewart tried to run him down, but it was too late.

Stewart leaves Las Vegas tied for the points lead with Kurt Busch, but it wasn't much solace for Smoke after the race.

Carl Edwards The Fords are back and we're strong. It's just a joy to drive these race cars right now.

-- Carl Edwards

"I probably should feel good about that, but it's not in my makeup," Stewart said. "It kills me to throw a race away like that, especially at a place where we haven't won. To lead that many laps [163 of 267] and lose it; it does not sit good right now."

That bummed-out feeling Stewart had Sunday was exactly how Edwards felt one week ago. Edwards was certain he had a car capable of winning at Phoenix before getting wrecked (unintentionally) by Kyle Busch.

"This means a lot coming off Phoenix," Edwards said. "You just don't know how things would go from there. You don't get a car that good very often, but we had another one today.

"The Fords are back and we're strong. It's just a joy to drive these race cars right now."

It's been an eventful 10 days for Edwards. He jumped off the Stratosphere, flew with the Thunderbirds and won for the third time in the past five races, counting the final two events of 2010.

But what does he remember most?

"When you're a kid you think about having your own plane and flying to Vegas with a bunch of girls," Edwards said. "I did that this week -- my mom, my wife and my daughter."

Edwards leaves Las Vegas tied for third in the standings with Montoya, only seven points behind Stewart and Busch.

"This is the best start to a season I've ever had," said Edwards, who thinks his team is better now than in 2008, when he won two of the first three races. "I'm really excited about it."

Stewart might feel the same way in a few days. He has finished 13th, seventh and second in the first three races. But for the moment, all he feels is disgust.

"It's real disappointing," Stewart said. "Honestly, we had the car to beat today. We shot ourselves in the foot. We just gave it away."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.