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There's just no point in coming to Las Vegas if you're not prepared to gamble, and that's just what Dale Earnhardt Jr. did on Sunday afternoon in the Kobalt 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, the third round in the 2014 championship. Unfortunately for Junior and his legion of fans, his plan fell half a lap short of gas - opening the door for Penske's Brad Keselowski to pick up the win instead at the last gasp, giving him an early probable place in the 2014 Chase play-offs in the process.
"At the end, the car was really fast," said Keselowski in victory lane at the end of the 267 lap race. "I'm really proud of the car and proud of the team for giving me a car that fast. This is a big deal for Ford. They have done a lot and worked really hard to get all the Ford teams better."
Starting from pole position, Keselowski's team mate Joey Logano had led the first stint ahead of Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. until a caution on lap 17 for fluid left on the track deposited by the expiring #98 Phil Parsons Racing driven by Josh Wise. Keselowski opted not to pit and so restarted in the lead on lap 22, but Logano quickly jumped back to the front once again and soon had a half second lead over the rest of the field that lasted until the second caution for debris in turn 3 on lap 45.
Jimmie Johnson beat Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. off pit road to assume the lead for the next phase of the race, but it was Kyle Busch who soon moved up to second spot having started the race back in 20th position, and on lap 77 he slipped past Johnson to lead the race outright for a spell ahead of a Hendrick Motorsports quartet consisting of Johnson, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
A round of green flag pit stops starting around lap 90 saw a lot of four-tyre stops, and when things settled down it was Busch still out in front ahead of Johnson and Earnhardt by almost four seconds and Kevin Harvick up to fourth after slow stops for Keselowski and Gordon. It was an impressive showing for Harvick, whose Stewart-Haas Racing team mates were all moribund outside the top 20 and Tony Stewart's pace in the #14 particularly poor despite frantic attempts to perk it up during the pit stops.
Harvick kept on coming and took the lead from Busch on lap 129 shortly before the midway point of the race. he kept the top spot through the second round of green flag pit stops of the day on lap 140 with a two second lead on Busch and a mighty six second margin over Johnson. The field was soon closed up again by a debris caution on lap 155, with Busch beating Harvick off pit road in the ensuring round of pit stops which with 112 laps still to go were frustratingly just a few laps outside the fuel window that would enable them to get to the chequered flag with just one more stop. Fuel conservation appeared to be the order of the day for the next stint.
Brad Keselowski went a different way and stayed off pit road to lead at the restart on lap 160, but the lack of fresh tyres not to mention an earlier brush against the wall did nothing to impair the #2 which easily continued to hold the lead.
"That was a heckuva call throughout the race to get us some track position and clean air," said Keselowski later of this pivotal stage of the race.
Meanwhile Harvick was struggling with a loose race car - and then from something considerably more serious. On lap 194 the #4 slowed and headed to pit road with terminal brake failure. A lap later Keselowski was also on pit road for his deferred pit stop which left Johnson briefly in the lead until he was passed in turn by the unexpectedly surging Paul Menard in the #27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
No one had done enough at this point to save fuel and so with 60 laps remaining - still outside the fuel window to make it to the end - Menard and the other leaders were soon on pit road for their own green flag stops. Once the cycle was complete, Keselowski was back in front with Menard, Johnson, Busch and Earnhardt some six seconds or more back - the Penske gamble of going a different way with strategy had seemingly worked a treat for the 2012 Cup champion.
The fuel situation was given a new twist on lap 220 with a new caution for debris on the frontstraight, which allowed the majority of the field to pit for the fuel they needed to make it to the finish. Three cars - Earnhardt, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin - elected to gamble and stayed out, the trio assuming the lead at the green flag on lap 226 ahead of Menard, Busch, Johnson and Keselowski. Hamlin immediately fell back, but Earnhardt and Edwards proved themselves well up to the job of pacing the field.
Fuel saving did eventually take its toll, Edwards finally forced to concede second place leaving Keselowski to hunt down Earnhardt for the lead. Earnhardt's crew chief Steve Letarte was warning his driver that the #88 was three quarters of a lap shy on fuel, and he proved to be exactly on the money as Keselowski took to the front as Earnhardt's car spluttered its way to the finish line ahead of Menard, Logano, Edwards and Johnson.
"Carl Edwards helped me out by giving me a little break so we could go run down the 88," Keselowski said afterwards. "That's what we needed, we need to put some pressure on Dale and not let him get to into fuel-saving mode."
It had worked, and meant that Keselowski had swept the spring weekend at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway having also clinched victory in Saturday's Nationwide Series race - the first driver to sweep both the Cup and Nationwide races at LVMS in the same weekend since Jeff Burton in 2000. It was Keselowski 11th victory in 164 Cup races and his first in six starts at venue, having led for 53 laps one more than Earnhardt and two more than Busch. All in all, it topped a perfect week for team owner Roger Penske who also recorded his first-ever golfing hole-in-one during the week.
As for Earnhardt, losing out on his second victory of the year was undoubtedly disappointing, but under the new 'winners first' format for deciding the Chase line-up he's already fairly confident of making it to the championship play-offs.
"We weren't going to run first or second had we not stayed out on that strategy, we knew we were a lap short," Earnhardt admitted later. "We tried to save as much as we could. We got it to about half a lap and it ran out off of two there.
"We took a gamble and didn't win the race, but it still worked in our favour to run second," he pointed out. " It gave us a chance to win. t sucks to lose like that, but we can't let that be a negative ... The only way to be productive is to be positive. We have got to look at the positives in today and keep working toward our goal of winning some more races."
With his Vegas victory, Keselowski is also looking a reasonable safe bet for a Chase berth. Overall, it seems that the new system is encouraging drivers to take more of a risk right from the start fo the year rather than hedge their bets and put safety first by having to play the points game, in which Earnhardt still leads Keselowski albeit by a single point heading into next weekend's race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"We're locked into Chase and I don't have to hear that crap all year about not being in the Chase," admitted Keselowski.
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings