NASCAR: Keselowski wins when Earnhardt runs out of gas
LAS VEGAS — When Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas coming off turn two on the last lap of the Kobalt 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, Brad Keselowski passed Earnhardt, took the lead and raced on to the win.
With the victory, Keselowski joined Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick in the win column early in the season, all but guaranteeing slots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship postseason.
“Locked in the Chase early, so I don’t have to hear that (junk) all year about not making the Chase,” Keselowski said.
Earnhardt was able to coast to a second-place finish. Paul Menard came in third, pole sitter Joey Logano took fourth, and Carl Edwards, who was on the same fuel-saving strategy as Earnhardt, rounded out the top five.
“It sucks to lose like that, but we can’t let that be a negative,” Earnhardt said. “We have got to go to Bristol and try to win there. The only way to be productive is to be positive. We have got to look at the positives in today and keep working toward our goal of winning some more races. It’s tough, tough losing like that.”
The field began cycling through green-flag pit stops with about 63 laps to go in the 267-lap race. Earnhardt and Edwards waited until later in the cycle, hoping they could get enough fuel to finish the race. The yellow flag waved for the final time just a few laps after the cycle completed, and almost all of the other drivers else pitted for a splash of fuel to make sure they could go the distance. Earnhardt and Edwards, though, stayed out.
“We weren’t going to run first or second had we not stayed out on that strategy,” Earnhardt said. “We knew we were a lap short. We tried to save as much 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.”
When the race returned to green, Earnhardt drove out to a lead of more than two seconds over Edwards. With just over 20 laps to go, Keselowski passed Edwards for second and closed in on Earnhardt. As Keselowski closed, Earnhardt’s plan to save fuel flew out the window and the Daytona 500 winner had to pick up speed to fend off the charging Keselowski. As a result of having to pick up speed to remain up front in the closing laps, Earnhardt didn’t have enough fuel to hold on.
Keselowski was on somewhat of a different pit strategy than most of his competitors throughout the race. He stayed out during the first caution of the race on lap 17 to inherit the lead. Later, he fell out of the top 10 during another caution as several drivers took only two new tires, while he stayed on pit road long enough for four.
By lap 120, Keselowski worked his way up to fourth. As Keselowski continued to move forward, Harvick (who won last week’s race), Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch showed the way up front.
The yellow flag waved again on lap 155. Again, Keselowski opted to stay out while everyone else pitted, regaining the lead. Harvick moved up to second when the race restarted but fell off the pace with 74 laps to go. He wound up spending time in the garage because of an issue with a left front wheel.
“It looks like the left front hub is locked up,” Harvick said. “Just got to keep doing what we’re doing and things will work out fine like that.”
A few laps after Harvick’s problems, Keselowski pitted under green after staying out during the previous caution. Several laps later, everyone else also pitted under green, cycling Keselowski back into the lead.
“Heck of a call throughout the race to get us out front,” Keselowski said.
Keselowski then built up a cushion of nearly 5.75 seconds, only to see the field bunched up by the fourth and final caution of the race with 47 laps to go. While Keselowski and others pitted for fuel, Earnhardt stayed out, hoping the fuel he had would carry him to the checkered flag.
Johnson wound up finishing sixth, unable to make his way back toward the front after his final pit stop. Ryan Newman was seventh, Kasey Kahne eighth, Jeff Gordon ninth, and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10.
Notes: Brad Keselowski finished in the top five in each race so far this season. ... Keselowski also won the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday. ... The second-place finish tied Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s worst result so far this season. He came in second a week ago at Phoenix International Raceway. ... Earnhardt started a Sprint Cup season with three top-five finishes for the first time. ... Keselowski earned a Sprint Cup win at Las Vegas for the first time. ... The yellow flag waved four times, with all of the cautions being for debris.