One week after running out of gas on the final lap, it appeared Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to be in the catbird seat Sunday at Kansas Speedway. With more fuel than the rest of the field, Earnhardt Jr. had to wait until Brad Keselowski ran out of gas.
The only problem was, Keselowski never ran out of fuel and was able to score his second career victory.
Stretching his fuel mileage 57 laps, Keselowski utilized a number of gas-saving tactics to conserve fuel, including pressing on the clutch as the car rolled through the corners.
With three laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. was told he would have to save fuel and his charge to the front was stalled, allowing Keselowski to drive away to the checkered flag.
“We’ve been so close lately, we really have,” Keselowski said in victory lane. “We had a car I thought was capable of winning at Bristol and got in an early wreck. (We) had a car last week that sat on the pole, thought we had a shot at it and just caught the wrong line on the restart. Same thing at Dover, Darlington, just never could catch that right break. You can only put yourself in that position so many times before you’re going to catch the right break. We caught a great break today.”
Only three-quarters of a lap short of making it to the end, crew chief Paul Wolfe said he did not believe the risk of running out was much of a gamble.
“It was like as everybody started peeling off and pitting we just kept getting faster and faster, and we were still running mid I guess 33 (seconds) or whatever it was, and guys were running low 33s,” Wolfe said. “And it was like, well, we’re not losing much, so it got us in a position where there were so many cars a lap down, even if the caution came out, we were still sitting okay. It was almost a no brainer for me once I saw how much speed we had in the clean air.”
With the victory, Keselowski moves to the 21st spot in the standings with one win. Unlike in years past, the final two Chase spots will be determined by the drivers with the most wins between 11th and 20th in the standings. Seven points out of the top 20, the Penske Racing driver is now within grasp of a Chase berth at the halfway mark of the regular season.
“If we deserve to be in it we’ll get in it,” Keselowski said. “If we don’t, we won’t. But right now we’re on a good path to deserve to be in it. That’s really what matters the most to me.
“I’m a big fan for the rule NASCAR implemented putting winners in the last two spots,” he said. “I think that serves the sport very well. And hopefully we’ll be able to capitalize on it. But there’s no guarantees of that. I feel pretty confident that it’s going to take really two wins to guarantee your way into it.”
For Earnhardt Jr., Sunday’s STP 400 was a strategy call that nearly paid off in his first victory since 2008. Coming into the race third in points, Earnhardt Jr. and his Steve Letarte-led team have the confidence to go for wins and be upset with finishing second.
One week after coming close to winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. understands that it takes strong runs as well as luck to put together a championship caliber season.
“We’ve had some runs where we drove ourselves into the positions where we finished. We finished well by running well and by getting lucky. And that’s what championship teams do,” he said. “And 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,” he added. “You know how the dice is, sometimes it works for you and sometimes it don’t.”
Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch led the most laps Sunday, but was forced to pit for fuel late in the race. Pitting five laps before Keselowski, Busch came up short but was pleased with the progress the team has made over the past few weeks.
“To have a car that can lead laps today and be very competitive like we were, I was all smiles,” Busch said. “I felt the groove again. To lead the race, to pace ourselves, to have team communication – it was great, it was solid. There was always something in the back of my mind today that we weren’t going to win, but I’m glad Brad Keselowski got this win for those Miller Lite guys, for Dodge.
“It’s just one of those things, you’re on the right side of the fuel cycle sometimes and sometimes you’re not,” he said. “I’m real proud of my guys and we’ll take this ninth place, I’m not discouraged at all.”
Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five, while Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Busch and Greg Biffle made up the rest of the top 10.