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CUP: Sunday Las Vegas Notebook

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JUNIOR’S ACHIEVEMENT — Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 10th in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a decent finish but not anything like Earnhardt showed early in the race. After starting the day in fourth place, Earnhardt took the lead on the opening lap and led 70 of the first 73 circuits. And that’s 18 more laps than Earnhardt led during the entire 2011 Sprint Cup season.

But when David Reutimann spun on Lap 74, Earnhardt pitted under the subsequent caution with the rest of the lead-lap cars, opting to take four tires when most of the leaders took two. Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet rejoined the race in 18th place and was never able to lead again.

Afterwards, Earnhardt blamed himself for not keeping up with the track.

“I think we should have run better than that and the team felt like we should have been better than that and we are just a little bit disappointed,” said Earnhardt. “Our car was tight at the start of the race, we were fast and I knew before the end of the race we were going to have to free my car up and I never let Steve (Letarte, crew chief) do it. I just never told him enough and never gave him enough freedom today that he felt like he needed to free the car up. When we got in traffic the car was just really tight and it’s a lesson that you learn a long, long time ago and we just didn’t do a good job of working on the car during the race. It was more my fault than anything really. I didn’t give him enough information, I guess.”

BIFFLE TAKES POINTS LEAD — Greg Biffle understands new math. Specifically, 3+3+3 = 1. In the case of Biffle, the Roush Fenway Racing driver finished third in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, making for three consecutive third-place finishes in three races this season. So now Biffle has his first Sprint Cup points lead since June 26, 2005. Biffle leads Kevin Harvick by 10 points, Denny Hamlin by 12 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 18.

Biffle was somewhat philosophical about his third-place finish — happy to have the points lead, but disappointed he didn’t win the race.

“We're kind of scratching our heads a little bit,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a tough battle today. We knew some cars had better speed than us, if we just hung tough, kept our track position, worked on it, we might be there at the end. That's certainly what happened today. But it was clear that the 14 (Tony Stewart) and 48 (Jimmie Johnson) were just a little bit better than we were. (The) 17 car (Matt Kenseth) looked like he was a little bit better than we were. So, you know, like we thought it would come out, we had about a top-five car and finished third, so we're super excited about it.”

CLEVER TREVOR — Trevor Bayne capped off a great Las Vegas weekend with a ninth-place finish in the Kobalt Tools 400, just his second career top-10 run in a NASCAR Sprint Cup car and his first since winning the Daytona 500 in 2011. Bayne also had a fourth-place finish in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“A top 10 feels like a win to us, especially with how hard we had to fight all day,” said Bayne, pilot of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Fusion.

Bayne at one point went a lap down, but then got the Lucky Dog to get back on the lead lap. “We fought hard from there and dialed the car in,” Bayne said. “The sun coming out really helped us.”

FUELISH MISTAKE — It was a hugely disappointing day for Penske Racing, which on Friday hosted a big corporate reception with AJ Allmendinger’s primary sponsor, Pennzoil. Both Allmendinger and teammate Brad Keselowski suffered mysterious fuel-pressure problems that dropped Keselowski to 32nd and Allmendinger 37th in the final results for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The team’s Penske Dodges had fuel in their respective tanks, but they couldn’t get that fuel to the engines.

“Just to be clear. On the last restart, the engine ran out of fuel, the fuel tank still had gas. This means, the fuel system had a problem,” Keselowski Tweeted after the race.

“It’s definitely tough to take right now,” said Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe. “Trying to dig ourselves out of that hole from Daytona and now we’re back in it again with a 32nd-place finish. The guys working on the 2 car have done very well. We put together a good weekend. We put ourselves in position here. We’ve just got to figure out these problems we’re having with the (fuel) pumps. You can’t race for a championship this way; we’re just going to have to go to work and figure it out.”

“Man, this is not the start to the season any of us were expecting,” added Allmendinger. “I'm struggling to figure out what to say because I'm feeling so many things right now. Our 22 Pennzoil Dodge was really good. I knew we had a top-five car after we got into the race.”

THE TEAMMATE THING — While Tony Stewart’s victory in the Kobalt Tools 400 was the big story Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Stewart’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, Ryan Newman, had an impressive run of his own, finishing fourth in the No. 39 SHR Chevrolet. It was Newman’s first top-five finish since Phoenix last November.

“This is our first intermediate track and intermediate tracks make up such a big part of our schedule and obviously the Chase that this is truly a good litmus test of what to expect for not just the first 26 (races) but for the rest of the season,” said Newman. “It also proves who’s got their programs together from an aerodynamic standpoint, from a ride standpoint. This track is really bumpy; bumpier than most. So there are a lot of things here that you have to be really refined and shined-up on to prove that you are a contender.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.