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Earnhardt Jr runs out of gas, settles for another top two finish in Vegas

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NASCAR history was made by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on March 9, although he didn't get everything he wanted. What Earnhardt wanted was his second win of the year in the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas, which he was two turns away from securing. However, he didn't have enough fuel for that final half-lap, as he merely finished in the top two for the third race in a row while Brad Keselowski took the win instead.

Only four other drivers had started a NASCAR season with three straight top two finishes since 1972. Nevertheless, Earnhardt has now lost those last two races, after starting off by winning the Daytona 500. Yet since he had barely won any races in the last several years, these defeats have to be put in perspective.

Earnhardt got close this time because he elected not to come in for more fuel during a caution with 42 laps left. It paid off at first, giving him a safe lead over Keselowski that would have held if he could have kept racing. But without that final dab of fuel for a last half-mile, Keselowski pulled ahead of Earnhardt by the time they got to turn four.

Even with nothing left in the tank, Earnhardt crossed the finish line safely ahead of third place Paul Menard. Joey Logano and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five, with Jimmie Johnson right behind them in sixth. Ironically, Johnson was the last NASCAR driver to start a season with three top two finishes, as it propelled him to his first Sprint Cup title in 2006 -- just as Earnhardt hopes for his first championship this year.

Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough also started and finished the same way in 1974 and 1977, yet Dale Jarrett couldn't win a championship after his hot start in 1996. Earnhardt is leading the early standings, but thanks to his victory and his own solid finishes in the past two weeks, 2011 Sprint Cup champion Keselowski is just one point back.

With the NASCAR season starting on such a high note, the bar is set that much higher for Earnhardt, Keselowski, Johnson and their rivals to top themselves at Bristol on March 16.

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