A long futility streak ended at Kansas Speedway, but it wasn’t that driver’s streak — it was Brad Keselowski’s. The young star managed to conserve just enough fuel to win the Sprint Cup STP 400 on Sunday.
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"We caught a break today," said Keselowski, who has experienced some hard-to-swallow finishes to races this year. "We got great gas mileage, and that doesn’t hurt, either."
And Dale Earnhardt Jr.? He’s holding steady at 106 races without a victory. Junior finished second, with Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards rounding out the top five.
Without an abundance on cautions during this race, fuel strategy was going to come into play. With 17 laps left, Kurt Busch — driving a dominant car — was in the top spot followed by Tony Stewart, Keselowski, Hamlin and Earnhardt. With 13 laps left, Stewart pitted to take on fuel and two tires.
Then it was Kurt Busch who was forced to duck off the track for a splash of gas with 10 laps remaining, allowing Keselowski to luck into the lead.
"There was always something in the back of my mind today that we weren’t going to win," said Kurt Busch.
So, did Keselowski squirm with excitment with the lead in his hands?
"Nobody really told me that we were leading," he said. "I don’t know when I took the lead."
That left Earnhardt in second place and within sight of the lead if he could catch up, or if Keselowski was forced into taking fuel. What followed was a masterly display of driving by the youngster as he and his crew managed to keep his car off pit road.
"The scoreboard is right in the middle of the racetrack and I looked over and saw my name on the top with two to go," Keselowski said. "I started shaking. I’m glad they didn’t tell me."
With three laps remaining, Earnhardt was still four seconds back, but Keselowski survived to reach Victory Lane for the first time in his past 61 Sprint Cup races. It’s his second career win in NASCAR’s top series.
"It’s because of the bad finishes and the struggles that we had to get here that I really appreciate this win," he continued. "I really appreciate what this means to my whole team and everybody that has helped me to get here."
There were several lead changes on a day that stood out for being hot and sticky. After Stewart grabbed the lead from Hamlin at one point, Earnhardt’s car suddenly gave way and spun out on Turn 3. However, Junior made a great save to avoid hitting the wall, but a fourth caution was called.
In the race off pit road, Hamlin came out ahead, followed by Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Gordon. On the restart, Kurt Busch made a beautiful (and aggressive) move to take second position behind Hamlin.
Both Stewart and Hamlin got high on Lap 161 and appeared to have had some contact — a caution was called for debris on the track. Of particular note was Hamlin coming in for a pit stop. He was the only contender to do so.
Kurt Busch was the leader off the restart with Gordon in second position. During a green-flag pit sequence, both Stewart and Hamlin pitted while holding their respective leads — Kurt became the race’s leader again after the sequence was complete.
Edwards became the new leader on the 84th lap, at one point holding a one-second edge over second-place Kurt Busch and a three-second lead over third-place Kyle Busch.
On Lap 111, a caution was called for debris on Turn 4.
Kurt Busch had some trouble with his yellow-flag pit stop: His gas man got behind putting the first can of fuel into the car, so Busch sat and waited for the second can to be emptied. Busch ended up leaving pit road with his tank not completely full.
A few laps later, another caution was called when Marcos Ambrose tapped Landon Cassill, who ended up going into the wall and sustaining side damage. On the restart, Stewart pushed up to second position. Juan Pablo Montoya hit the wall on Turn 3, and although there was visible damage, no caution was called.
Montoya dropped all the way back to 28th as a result.
Earnhardt, who had a heartbreaking finish last week at Charlotte, had been quiet until almost the midpoint of the race. "We’re getting there pretty good," Earnhardt told crew chief Steve Letarte. "(It’s) a pretty good car."
When the green flag dropped, Kyle Busch wasted no time jumping ahead of front-row starter Montoya. By Lap 10, Stewart had made headway, as well.
"We got something we can work with here today, boys," Stewart’s radio chatter crackled, as he moved up from 13th place to sixth.
The first pit sequence was completed after 48 laps, and the drivers appeared to have no issues maneuvering down pit road. By Lap 50, Kurt Busch had extended his lead over Montoya to 1.3 seconds.
Kyle Busch tagged the wall on the 59th lap, and although no caution was called, his car had a long stripe down the right side. The first yellow flag was dropped on Lap 68 for debris on Turns 1 and 2. On the restart, Kurt Busch was the leader, with his brother in second.