Hard work pays off for Keselowski

At the start of the season Kurt Busch complained about not having a teammate he could call his equal at Penske Racing since Ryan Newman left in 2008.

Want to bet Brad Keselowski’s win at Kansas Speedway on Sunday changed his mind?

“Kurt had ’em covered on speed and we had ’em covered on strategy,” Keselowski said after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup STP 400 by riding fuel strategy to Victory Lane. “One of us . . . was going to win. It was a team victory today.”

Busch started from the pole and led a race-high 152 of 267 laps in a dominating performance at Kansas Speedway. But with 10 laps remaining in the race, he was forced to pit for fuel and relinquished the lead to Keselowski.

Keselowski not only had enough fuel to hold off second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. and third-place Denny Hamlin, but he had enough to comply with his crew chief Paul Wolfe — who insisted he perform a celebratory burnout for the fans.

“We finally caught a break Paul, awesome job,” Keselowski exclaimed.

For the first time since Keselowski was promoted to Sprint Cup competition, he’s able to enjoy a little consistency with his team. Sure, Keselowski won in just his fifth Sprint Cup start, which came with Phoenix Racing, but he’s worked with seven different crew chiefs in the Cup series.

"It’s been a lot of people," Keselowski said. "And we’re finally hitting on a good combination here with Paul and I. And we’re on the same wavelength, and that’s really what matters the most."

Once he found success with Wolfe, a former driver turned crew chief, in the Nationwide Series, it seemed only natural that team owner Roger Penske would pair the two together in Cup. Keselowski, a 27-year-old racer, still needed guidance for the long haul. And Wolfe has been able to provide that balance.

Not surprisingly, 13 races into their Cup partnership, the two picked up their first win at NASCAR’s top level.

“We’re finally hitting on a good combination here with Paul and I,” Keselowski said. “And we’re on the same wavelength and that’s really what matters most."

The entire organization seems to be hitting that combination.

"As far as the information sharing between the teams, it’s definitely obvious that we do share all the information," Wolfe said. "I think you can see that in how well both cars ran today. And it seems like here of late . . . we’ve found — we’ve made some gains, and I think it showed up in both cars.

"And we’ll continue to work together to make each of us better, and that’s kind of how it’s supposed to work. And I feel like the relationship between (Busch crew chief) Steve (Addington) and I (is good) and our communication’s real well. And between the drivers, I think this says a lot for Brad and the respect that he deserves, and I’m sure Kurt gives him now, he’s proven that he’s as good as anybody out there."

Wolfe told his driver “if we just keep putting ourselves in the top 10,” the team would eventually be a contender.

“It’s not always the fastest car that seems to be winning these races,” Wolfe said. “So we’ve kept working on our program since the beginning of the year. To see the progress that we‘ve made and (to) put ourselves in position to win these races now says a lot about all the hard work and everything that‘s been going on at Penske Racing.”

Wolfe acknowledged he was embarrassed with the team’s performances at California and Las Vegas earlier this year. But the team posted an impressive third-place run at Darlington Raceway — one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.

Then last week, bad luck bit Keselowski again at Charlotte.

Keselowski started from pole position there and led the first seven laps. He was running third on the final restart when Kasey Kahne ran out of gas coming through the gears. Kahne stalled and Keselowski plowed into him. Although Keselowski salvaged a 19th-place finish, he fell from 24th to 25th in the points standings.

On Sunday, strategy paid off as Keselowski was the only driver able to make it through 267 laps of racing on five pit stops.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress the last several weeks,” said team owner Roger Penske. “People haven’t really noticed it, but . . . the 2 car there and the 22 (have) run well. This is a real step-up for us. These (mile-and-a-half tracks) are the tracks that were tough for us. It looks like we have a handle on these now.”

Gaining momentum

No, there’s not a new driver behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet. It’s still Dale Earnhardt Jr. — but with a renewed attitude.

The old Dale Jr. did not look forward to leaving his house for the racetrack on Thursdays. The old Dale Jr. wouldn’t leave the driver motorcoach lot on the weekend — let alone wait 30 minutes in line for barbecue at a gas station wearing an AMP cap.

He did that this weekend, then he turned his attention to the race. An hour into it, Earnhardt Jr. radioed to the crew, “I’ll be surprised if this heat don’t get me. It’s pretty damn hot.”

In recent years, that might have signaled that the driver was done for the day. But not this year. Crew chief Steve Letarte reminded Junior there was still a long way to go and the team would find a way to make the driver more comfortable. After starting 28th, there was a lot of work ahead for Earnhardt, but he refused to let fatigue set in.

Halfway through the race, he moved up in the top 15 and kept battling through traffic. On lap 152, he overdrove the car through Turn 4 and spun.

“I went searching for more speed and busted my butt up there in (Turns) 3 and 4,” Earnhardt said. “And tossed in all the spots we worked for all day.”

Still, with the confidence Earnhardt has regained this season, he’s willing to take chances.

Although Junior dropped outside the top 25 with the miscue, the team elected to pit during the fifth caution on Lap 163. With new tires and fuel, Earnhardt worked his way back to second before pitting again on Lap 214. From there, Earnhardt could go the distance — and was in position to end his 105-race winless streak if Brad Keselowski ran out of gas.

Keselowski went the distance, but Earnhardt still realizes “how fortunate I was today to get second place.“

“We’ve had some runs where we drove ourselves into the positions where we finished,” Earnhardt said. “We finished well by running well and by getting lucky. And that’s what championship teams do. You always scratch your head when Jimmie (Johnson) and them guys look like they’re out of it and next thing you turn around at the end of the race and they’re right there in the middle of it. And you’re like: ‘How in the world?’

“So now I guess I’m on that side of the fence. I see some of it and I see why it happens.

“But it’s just rolling the dice, man, that’s what it was. You know how the dice is, sometimes it works for you and sometimes it don’t.”

Earnhardt’s second-place finish enabled him to move into third place in the points standings — one point behind his Hendrick teammate Johnson.

The fuel dilemma

With consecutive intermediate tracks on the schedule, fuel mileage came into play at both Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

Denny Hamlin settled for 10th place at Charlotte when the calculations did not go his way. But the gas gods were in the No. 11 car’s favor on Sunday as Hamlin finished third in the STP 400. Hamlin’s second top-five of the season elevated the Joe Gibbs Racing team to 11th in the points standings — just one point behind 10th-place Ryan Newman.

“We decided to come in, work on it, get fuel to put us right there on the pit window and obviously it worked great for us,” Hamlin said. “We’re battling back. The pit crew is really stepping up these last few weeks and (we’re) getting ourselves back in position.”

Both Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart had issues with their fueling systems during pit stops. On Lap 211, the No. 14 Chevrolet pitted from the lead with 56 to go — well within the fuel window. Stewart appeared to be biding his time in the top five as laps wound down but was forced to pit again with 13 laps remaining, sacrificing prime track position and winding up in eighth place.

“We didn’t get all the fuel in to make it to the end,” Stewart said. “We had a problem getting fuel in and we didn’t get it full at that second-to-last stop, so we had to pit there with about 10 to go. There’s nothing you can do.”

Stewart added it was up to the crew chief to make the fuel decisions.

“I can’t see the monitor,” Stewart said. “I can’t see the lap times and you’ve got to trust what he sees. The hard thing is that they know it was a problem in not getting all the fuel in the car and that changed our strategy.”

Numbers game

5 races between top-five finishes for Jeff Gordon (Talladega)

35 races since a Penske Sprint Cup win (Kurt Busch at Charlotte in 2010)

75 Sprint Cup races since Brad Keselowski’s last win (He made 61 starts during that stretch)

Say what?

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked about what he’ll do to recover on Monday:

“I want to lay by the pool, drink some AMP, vodka, whatever," he said.