The first big hint that Tony Stewart might have championship inclinations last season came, oddly enough, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he met one of the year’s biggest frustrations.

Stewart had the dominant car in last year’s Kobalt Tools 400 – then, as now, the third race of the season. He led 163 laps and built advantages over second place that grew into comfortable cushions.

But, past the halfway point, a pit road mistake – an air hose caught on Stewart’s car, which pulled the hose into the adjacent pit – cost him a pass-through penalty, socking him with a 24th-place restart.

It was a deficit Stewart couldn’t quite overcome. He finished second to Carl Edwards. Their names would become intertwined again late in the season as they staged one of the sport’s epic championship battles. (Stewart, in fact, left Las Vegas tied for the point lead with Kurt Busch).

“That’s a race we should’ve won,” Stewart said. “Winning in Sprint Cup is hard enough as it is, and when you have a race like that and you’re not able to close the deal, especially at a track where you haven’t won yet, that’s hard.

“I wasn’t really in any mood to appreciate it right after the race, or even when I was in the media center talking about it. But, on the flight home, and then Tuesday at the shop when I saw all the guys and we had our competition meeting, the anger went away. To be mad about a second-place finish – that’s a good problem to have.”

Despite good drives there, Las Vegas remains one of the few NASCAR venues where Stewart has been denied a visit to victory lane. But there are no mysteries at the 1.5-mile track, he said.

“There’s really no key to it,” he said. “It’s just like anywhere else you go. You just have to have a well-balanced car. It seems like track position is really, really key there, but as long as you can get your car driving well and stay ahead of it, it seems like as the day changes, or the longer the day goes, the more the track changes and the more you have to stay up with it.

“You just can’t have any mistakes there because you cannot afford to lose the track position, and you have to be able to stay up with the changing track conditions as the day goes on.

“There’s no unique challenges there. The track is really smooth, and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps. Vegas has bumps, too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”

Stewart has three top-three finishes and five top fives at Vegas.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.