As the end of the race drew closer, fans held their breath in anticipation. Would Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have enough fuel? Or would he run out before grabbing his second win of the season? Down the backstretch, Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Mountain Dew/KickStart Chevrolet sputtered as fuel escaped the pick-up. The sputter was enough as Brad Keselowski would slip by and grab the win in the Kobalt Tools 400.
For Keselowski, it marks his second win of the weekend after dominating yesterday’s Nationwide Series race. He also dominated today’s race, leading a race high 53 laps on his way to his 11th victory of his career, first Sprint Cup Series victory of the season. After missing the Chase for the Championship last year, Keselowski has virtually punched his ticket for the Chase.
“Heck of a call to get us out front and get us the track position,” the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford commented. “At the end, this car was just really fast. I was really proud of it. It was really fast. Carl Edwards helped me out there. He gave me a break there and let me go after Dale as I figured if I could pressure on him, he would run out of it. I’m locked in the Chase – I don’t have to hear about the crap for the rest of the year.”
Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe played a different sort of strategies all day long as he tried to put his driver out front. After the final pit stop under a late caution with 48 laps to go, Keselowski quickly moved to second and began tracking Earnhardt down.
Steve LeTarte chose to keep Earnhardt Jr. on track under that caution as he felt it was their only shot to get a win, versus finishing about fifth in the running order. At the time, Earnhardt was approximately three laps short and with about 20 laps to go, LeTarte predicted that his driver would run out about half a lap from the finish with the fuel they were saving.
“We weren’t going to run first or second if we hadn’t tried that strategy,” Earnhardt Jr. commented after the race. “We got it within half a lap and ran out there. We took a gamble and it paid off as it put us up there. It’s disappointing. I hate to lose like that, but it’s still a good a run. We got to go to Bristol and win there and the only way to do well there is stay positive. But man, it hurts to lose ‘em like that.”
Paul Menard would post an impressive third place finish after running up front the second half of the race.
“These guys never give up,” Menard said. “The Menards Chevrolet was really good on long run. What we got going is working and hopefully we can go to Bristol – the bullring and keep it going.”
Pole sitter Joey Logano finished fourth for his second straight top five finish.
“Once we lost our track position there, it was so loose,” Logano commented. “Todd kept making adjustments and swinging at it and it still wasn’t quite good enough at the end to race with those guys but we were able to get a good restart and get up there. Nice job by Brad with the win; that’s one car in the Chase. Now we just got to get the 22 in the Chase. It’s a solid season for us to start – a couple top fives. We’ve got speed. We’ve just got to fine tune it a little bit better to get a win.”
Carl Edwards finished fifth, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Kyle Busch would finish 11th in his hometown race, followed by Denny Hamlin, Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray. Austin Dillon was the highest finishing rookie in 16th.
Last week’s race winner Kevin Harvick would run into troubles as the left front wheel-hub assembly locked up on his Chevrolet in the second half of the race, forcing him behind the wall.
“Its hard to tell right now,” he commented. “Looks like the left front hub is locked shut and the car just started to get real loose which is no surprise. Got to thank all these guys. If we keep putting cars like this together, we’ll be fine.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads to Bristol Motor Speedway as the points leader, one point ahead of Brad Keselowski.