Sunday’s Kobalt 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway turned into a race of the haves and the have-nots, with Brad Keselowski having enough fuel to pass a sputtering Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap to drive on to the win. Earnhardt gambled of fuel mileage late in the race and ran out coming out of turn two on the final lap. Despite running out of fuel, he was able to coast to a second-place finish.
“It’s tough losing like that,” Earnhardt said. “That thing started sputtering off turn two.”
With the win, Keselowski joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick as race winners three races into the season, all but guaranteeing spots in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup post-season.
“Locked in the Chase early, so I don’t have to hear that crap all year about not making the Chase,” Keselowski said.
Paul Menard finished third, pole sitter Joey Logano was fourth, and Carl Edwards rounded out the top-five. Edwards attempted the same fuel-saving strategy as Earnhardt.
The field cycled through green-flag pit stops in the final 65 laps of the race. Earnhardt and Edwards were among the last to stop during the cycle, hoping they would be able to stretch that tank of fuel the rest of the distance. The yellow flag waved the fourth and final time just a few laps after the cycle completed, and most of the field headed down pit road for a splash of fuel. Earnhardt and Edwards, though, stuck with their gambling strategy and stayed out.
When the race restarted, 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 began reeling in Earnhardt.
With Keselowski getting closer, Earnhardt had to abandon his fuel-saving efforts and speed up to stay in front. Keselowski’s pressure resulted in Earnhardt running out on the final lap.
Keselowski was also on a different pit strategy for much of 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,a nd 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. But a few 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 he 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.
Check out these photos from Sunday’s Kobalt 400 (photos courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR):