Brad Keselowski used strategy and timing to perfection, winning Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas half a lap from the end of the race.
Keselowski drove his No. 2 Penske Racing Ford around Earnhardt on the backstretch of the 267th and final lap to win the 11th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of his career and become the third different winner in as many races this season.
The victory means Keselowski is a virtual lock to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup under NASCAR’s new win-and-you’re-in championship format.
"It’s very special to get a win early in the year when it’s just such a reliever for everyone on the team and myself included to get that win in early and be able to enjoy the races and opportunities that we have instead of being stressed out about them," said Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, who gave team owner Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup victory in Las Vegas.
Keselowski also won Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race, making him the first driver since Jeff Burton in 2000 to sweep at the 1.5-mile Vegas track.
Earnhardt, one of three drivers who opted not to pit for fuel on the final caution-flag period that began on Lap 222, held on to finish second in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet ahead of Paul Menard’s Richard Childress Racing Chevy, Joey Logano in a second Penske Ford and Carl Edwards in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
"We weren’t going to run first or second had we not stayed out on that strategy," said Earnhardt, who has six consecutive top-five finishes dating back to last year. "We knew we were a lap short. We tried to save as much (fuel) as we could. We got it to about half a lap and it ran out off of (turn) two there. We took a gamble and didn’t win the race, but it still worked in our favor to run second. It gave us a chance to win.
Earnhardt did make history by joining Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Dale Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers in NASCAR history to open a season with three consecutive top-two finishes. "It sucks to lose like that, but we can’t let that be a negative," the Daytona 500 winner said. "We have got to go to Bristol and try to win there."
It was an exciting afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The Penske entries were fast from the get-go. Logano started from the pole, flanked by Keselowski and it was Logano took the early lead, as Keselowski fell back to fifth in the opening laps of the race.
At the 100-lap mark, Kyle Busch led Jimmie Johnson by 3,91 seconds, with Earnhardt third ahead of Kevin Harvick, Keselowski and Jeff Gordon.
Harvick, last week’s winner in Phoenix, moved up steadily from his 16th starting position, and he took his first lead on Lap 130. Four laps later, the field hit the halfway mark, with Harvick leading Busch by 0.585 sec., followed by the Hendrick teammates Johnson, Earnhardt and Gordon.
Most of the leaders pitted after a debris caution on Lap 156, but under the direction of crew chief Paul Wolfe, Keselowski stayed out and took over the top spot. That put the Penske Ford on a different strategy than the leaders and ended up being the key move of the race.
"The call that Paul made, as he said, we’re going to take a few chances," said team owner Roger Penske. "We knew we had a fast car, you could see in clear air how good the car was."
Harvick’s shot at a second victory ended on Lap 195 when he had to pit for an issue with his left-front hub, which locked up. Keselowski pitted from the lead one lap later, and then Menard passed Johnson on Lap 198 to move into the No. 1 position.
After a round of green-flag pit stops, Keselowski found himself out front again on Lap 213, leading Menard, Johnson, Busch and Earnhardt.
A caution for debris sent the field down pit road on Lap 226, with most of the field opting for fuel only, but Keselowski taking two tires. Earnhardt, Edwards and Denny Hamlin stayed out, taking over the top three spots, with Keselowski rejoining the race seventh.
With fresh rubber, Keselowski was able to move up in the closing laps, moving to second with 20 laps to go.
Keselowski said he knew he had the race won when he ran Earnhardt down in the closing laps and got to him.
"I think 10, 15 laps, whatever that was, and forced him to kind of get up into his speed line, and that was just taking fuel from his car," Keselowski said. "Once that happened, I knew we were in really good shape. It was going to play out one of two ways: He was going to have to get in fuel conservation mode and I think I could have passed him and drove away, or he was going to have to burn fuel to keep me behind him. At that point it was just a matter of whether a yellow came out or not because it was just a ticking time bomb, and it worked in our favor today."
Earnhardt held onto the lead until the final half lap, when his tank ran dry, which allowed Keselowski to make the race-winning pass.
Keselowski led a race-high 53 laps, to 52 for Kyle Busch and 51 for Earnhardt.