March 9, 2014 — By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service — photo courtesy NASCAR Via Getty Images — LAS VEGAS — Unfortunately for Dale Earnhardt Jr., crew chief Steve Letarte’s words proved prophetic.
“If it runs out, stay on the track and coast to the finish,” Letarte told his driver as he took the white flag in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
And that’s exactly what happened.
After pulling away slightly from race winner Brad Keselowski during a dramatic battle over the last 15 of 267 laps, Earnhardt ran out of fuel on the backstretch, a half-lap from the finish, and coasted home in second place, 1.531 seconds behind the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
Following a scrape with the outside wall and an off-sequence pit strategy, Keselowski took the checkered flag for the first time this season, the first time at LVMS and the 11th time in his Sprint Cup career.
The winner of Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race, Keselowski completed the first weekend sweep by a Ford driver since Carl Edwards won both races at Phoenix in 2010.
Earnhardt, the Daytona 500 winner, was runner-up for the second-straight race. Paul Menard ran third, followed by pole winner Joey Logano and Carl Edwards, as Fords grabbed three of the top five positions.
Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kensethcompleted the top 10.
With a victory, all but guaranteeing a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Keselowski wasn’t surprised that Earnhardt and Letarte were willing to gamble.
“It’s such a (relief) for myself and everyone on the team to get that win in early and being able to enjoy the racing opportunities that we have, rather than being stressed out about it,” Keselowski said. “The chance that Dale and Stevie took with the 88 car was way out there.
“It was a good, risky move on their part, because they had nothing to lose because of this (new Chase) format. I think that shows some of the opportunities that come (from having) stress-free days, and I’m looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities, because I’m not scared to take ‘em, and I know (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) is not, so look out.”
Committed to a fuel-mileage gamble, a luxury he earned with the Daytona 500 win, Earnhardt stayed on track during Lap 222 pit stops under the fourth caution of the afternoon for debris on the front stretch.
It was that same caution that gave Keselowski a welcome opportunity to refuel, a move that put him back on sequence with the rest of the lead-lap drivers other than Earnhardt, Edwards and 12th-place finisher Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski restarted seventh but quickly rocketed past all but Earnhardt and Carl Edwards, who also stayed out under the yellow. More than two seconds behind Earnhardt, Keselowski slipped past Edwards on Lap 245 and drew a bead on the leader.
With three laps left, Keselowski had narrowed the interval to .296 seconds, the closest he would get before Earnhardt’s car slowed on the backstretch halfway through the final lap.
“I ran two real hard laps right after that restart (on Lap 226), and we got about a 20-car-length lead, and I started lifting real early into both corners and seeing whether they were going to catch me,” Earnhardt said. “So I was being pretty cautious and lifting pretty early, and when I saw Brad pass the 99 (Edwards), I knew Brad in clean air would be quicker than us, potentially — he had been all day — and I just continued to save fuel and hope that once he got behind me and got into dirty air I could keep him there.
“I continued to save until he got within about eight car lengths, and then I started running hard, and we were fast enough to keep him behind us. As soon as I got to the top of Turns 1 and 2 the last several laps, I was real comfortable that he wasn’t going to get to me, felt fine about, if we had enough gas, we weren’t going to have a problem, but we didn’t have enough gas.”
Using a contrarian fuel-mileage strategy, Keselowski stayed on track when the rest of the lead-lap cars came to pit road on Lap 156, under the third caution of the race for debris on the backstretch.
Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford took off on old tires and built a lead of more than 2.5 seconds over Kevin Harvick, whose strong run was spoiled by a brake failure as he chased Keselowski.
Harvick, last week’s winner at Phoenix, brought his car to pit road on Lap 194 and ultimately lost 30 laps as his team went about repairs in the garage.
Keselowski gave up the lead when he came to pit road on Lap 196 and regained it briefly during the subsequent green-flag pit stop cycle. But Earnhardt took the point by staying out for a Lap 226 restart and held the top spot until Keselowski passed him on the final lap.