LAS VEGAS — In greeting the media Sunday afternoon at the conclusion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked up a can of sponsor Mountain Dew Kickstart energy drink and realized how close he was.
“That's what we needed,” Earnhardt said. “Sixteen ounces.”
That's basically what prevented him from scoring his second win of the young season. Instead, his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet ran out of gas exiting turn two, and 200 yards later, Brad Keselowski shot past him and breezed to the win.
Keselowski, scoring his 11th career win, crossed the finish line 1.530 seconds ahead of Earnhardt, averaging 154.633 mph. He was among 10 drivers who led the field, leading five times for a race-best 53 laps, one more than Kyle Busch. Earnhardt led three times for 51 laps.
Three Fords were in the top five. In addition to Keselowski, driving for Roger Penske, teammate Joey Logano was fourth, followed by Carl Edwards. Paul Menard, whose wife is due to deliver the couple's first baby on Tuesday, finished third.
Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth, the highest-finishing Toyota driver, rounded out the top 10.
“It's very special to get a win early,” Keselowski said. “I won't have to hear all that crap about not making the Chase this year. It's such a reliever for everyone on the team to get that win and be able to enjoy the races and opportunities that we have of not being stressed about them.”
Under the new Chase format, race winners earn a spot. Thus far, Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick and Keselowski have virtually punched their ticket into the playoffs.
And because of his season-opening Daytona win, Earnhardt employed a strategy that he said “absolutely” would have been used in previous years.
“We weren't going to run in the top five if we hadn't used that particular strategy,” Earnhardt said of the call by crew chief Steve Letarde, who had predicted running out of fuel three-quarters of a lap from the finish. “If we had run the same strategy as our competitors, we would have probably run just inside the top 10, where we were all day.
“Running out of gas is tough, but one thing you can't do is let it get under your skin, get under your team's skin.”
It was a gamble Keselowski endorsed.
“If anything, it actually lends itself to better racing. That chance that Dale and Stevie took was way out there, and it was a good risky move because they had nothing to lose because of this format,” Keselowski said, referring to Earnhardt already having a win. “I think that shows some of the opportunities that come up and how they can be stress-free days.
“I'm looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities. I'm not scared.”
Paul Wolfe, Keselowsk's crew chief, did the same math and urged his driver to get around Carl Edwards, third at the time, and pressure Earnhardt. Keselowski passed Edwards with about 25 laps to go and slowly crept up on Earnhardt.
“Passing the 99 (Edwards) was huge for us, (as) that gave us an opportunity to put pressure on Dale. I felt I could run him down. We forced him to 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.”
The late-race drama caught Penske's attention.
“I've never seen him drive better,” Penske said of Earnhardt. “It was going to be a real gunfight.”
Despite Keselowski's weekend sweep — he was the Nationwide Series race winner on Saturday — it was a bittersweet win for Penske.
“We lost William Clay Ford today, a patriarch of the Ford family,” Penske said of the Detroit Lions owner who died at age 88. “I'm gonna give this race to William Clay Ford.”
As good as it was for Penske, it was the opposite for Stewart Haas Racing. Danica Patrick led the quartet of team drivers in 21st, with Kurt Busch 26th, Tony Stewart 33rd, four laps down, and Kevin Harvick, who led twice for 23 laps, 41st after he lost his brakes midway through the race and finished 30 laps down.