Two drivers gambled Sunday but only one came out a winner. Brad Keselowski was able to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to score his first win of the season.
Both drivers gambled earlier in the race, Keselowski stayed out during a lap 155 caution to get track position. Earnhardt’s crew kept him out during a caution on lap 220 and tried to stretch his fuel mileage; he came up a half a lap short and Keselowski was able to power by for the win.
“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.”
Polesitter Joey Logano led the field to the green but it was a side by side battle with teammate Keselowski until turn 3 of the first lap when Keselowski slipped and fell back to seventh. Logano pulled ahead as Bowyer ran second Stenhouse Jr. third. Johnson had moved up the third by the fifth lap.
Johnson caught and passed Bowyer for second on lap 12; Logano continued to stretch out his lead and was over two seconds ahead on lap 15. The first caution came out on lap 17 when Josh Wise lost an engine. The leaders came in for stops with the lead group taking only two tires; Keselowski stayed out and took the lead, Logano was first off pit road. The restart came on lap 22 and Logano shot past Keselowski for the lead. By lap 39 Logano was beginning to lap the field.
The second caution came out for debris on lap 45; the caution came out at a good time for Keselowski who had stayed out and was getting ready to come in for a green flag stop and for Tony Stewart who was struggling and getting ready to get lapped by Logano.
The leaders came in for pit stops; Johnson was first out thanks to a two-tire stop. Jeff Gordon came out second, Martin Truex Jr. third, Brian Vickers fourth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fifth; all thanks to two tire stops. Logano took four and restarted 12th, followed by Keselowski in 13th who also took with four tires. It was only a few laps before Johnson had stretched out his lead to over a second over Truex who had shot past Gordon for second on the restart. Earnhardt had settled into third.
Kyle Busch who had started in the back of the field made his way to third by lap 64; a few circuits later Busch was second. Truex was slipping back and was fourth. Busch was reeling Johnson in and on lap76 was able to move past on the high side entering turn 3 for the lead. Johnson started slipping back, two laps later Earnhardt moved around Johnson for second. By lap 87 Busch had a lead of just over a second as green flag stops approached. Those stops started on lap 91 led by Logano. Busch gave up the lead and came in for his stop on lap 96; Earnhardt came in a lap later. After the stops cycled through, Busch was again in the lead, Johnson was in second, and Earnhardt was third.
By lap 108 Busch had a nearly five second lead. Harvick had moved to third past Earnhardt Jr. By lap 115 Harvick was in second and had cut the lead in half. By 119 Harvick was a half a second back. Harvick was able to catch Busch and take the lead on lap 129.
Green flag stops started on lap 138. Harvick led a group of the leaders in on lap 140. He was back in the lead after the stops cycled through. The third caution came out, again for debris, on lap 155.
Harvick led the lead group down pit road. Most took only two tires; Gordon and Earnhardt took fuel only. Keselowski stayed out and took the lead making up ground he has lost earlier. Kyle Busch was second, Harvick third, Johnson third, Gordon fourth and Earnhardt fifth. The green came out on lap 160 with Keselowski on point. Keselowski was able to move out to about a one-second lead. Paul Menard started showing some speed in the last 100 laps and on lap 181 moved past Busch into fourth. Menard continued moving forwards hunting Johnson for third on lap 190 just as Harvick slowed dramatically. A puff of smoke out the left front showed just as Harvick pitted. Keselowski made his green flag stop a lap later just as Menard caught Johnson; the duo battled side-by-side for a lap before Menard took the lead on lap 198 as Harvick took his Chevy to the garage to replace the left front hub. Harvick finished 41st.
“It’s hard to complain,” Harivck said. “Just a little parts failure there and just we will figure out the cause of it and try to just keep that from happening. Every week is a new notebook for us. I really think as we get established and get some foundation for our set-ups and just the little things this team is going to be dangerous.”
Menard made his green flag stop on lap 205; Johnson a lap later. The rest of the field started the cycle of green flag stops behind them. After the cycle, Keselowski was back in the lead.
Shortly after the green flag stops on lap 220, the fourth caution came out for debris. The leaders came in, most took fuel only, Keselowski took two tires. But Earnhardt Jr. elected to stay out. Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards also stayed out. Earnhardt led, in front of Hamlin and Edwards; Menard was fourth, Kyle Busch, Johnson and Keselowski.
On the restart, Earnhardt shot to the front while Busch and Keselowski shot to the bottom and picked up spots. They were soon fighting for third and forth while Edwards held on for second.
Menard was soon in the mix. Logano surprised both and would come by to take over fourth a few laps later. Menard settled into fifth, while Busch started slipping back.
“The car was too loose on the first run and we tightened it up and it was really fast for awhile,” Busch said. “But, we kept adjusting on it to try and help the tight in the center of the corner and it was just getting looser and looser, especially on the last run.”
With 20 to go, Keselowski took over second and began chipping away at Earnhardt’s lead as Earnhardt started to go in to fuel saving mode. With 11 laps to go Keselowski caught Earnhardt and started putting pressure on him for the lead. With 10 to go though, Earnhardt began to stretch his lead out; but with five to go Keselowski had caught him again and the battle was on.
“I could tell he was saving a little bit based on the lines he was running compared to where I had seen him earlier in the day,” Keselowski said. “He was able to save a little bit, but once I ran up on him, with him not running his fastest line, he was running his fuel conserve line, and once I saw that, we ran him down, I think 10, 15 laps, whatever that was, and forced him to kind of get up into his speed line, and that was just taking fuel from his car. Once that happened, I knew we were in really good shape.”
On the final lap Keselowski dove to the low side and suddenly Earnhardt slowed as his Chevy began to run out of fuel; Keselowski was able to get by on the backstretch as Earnhardt’s Chevy sputtered to life again.
“I was lifting real early trying to save even more,” Earnhardt said. “We figured we were a lap short, and I was lifting early and let Brad get there, and I felt like if we were good enough to hold him off, then we'd win the race. If we weren't, we would have saved enough fuel to have finished the race, at least get to the end. I can run out of gas on the back stretch and be okay, but if I run out off of 4 coming to the white it would've been big trouble, so I had to save a little bit. So I let him catch us and once he got there, I ran as hard as I could and could pull back away from him.”
Keselowski was able to hold on, with Earnhardt coasting across the line in second. Menard was third, Logano fourth and Edwards saved enough fuel for fifth.
“You know, it did pay off,” Earnhardt said of his crews gamble. “Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second. We weren't going to -- as much as you want to win, and believe me, we were out there trying to win, you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish, and we weren't going to run in the top 5 if we hadn't have used that particular strategy, if we'd have run the same strategy as our competitors we would have probably run just inside the top 10 where we were all day.”
Johnson was sixth, Kasey Kahne seventh, Gordon ninth and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10.
Earnhardt maintains his points lead over Keselowski as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee for next Sunday’s Food City 500.