Flirting with disaster yet again as he did during the Daytona 500 victory, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the lead heading into the final lap of the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. The gamble didn't pay off this time around, however, as Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel and Brad Keselowski emerged victorious.
Keselowski swept both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races on consecutive days and secured his third top-five finish of the season through three races—the same as Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR on Fox announced the results as the race went final:
The win puts Keselowski in prime position to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup after three dominant runs on the year thus far.
After winning the 2012 Sprint Cup Championship, he missed the Chase last season. But he feels as though the pressure is already off, according to Fox's broadcast (via Jeff Gluck of USA Today):
Brad Keselowski on FOX: "I don't have to hear that crap all year anymore of not being in the Chase."— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) March 9, 2014
Passing on the last lap of a race is certainly not something that's uncommon in NASCAR, nor is a driver in the lead running out of fuel.
As for Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr., it was deja vu from the first-ever win of Keselowski's career, per Matt Willis of ESPN:
This is the 2nd time @keselowski has won with a last-lap pass. Other was his 1st Cup win, 2009 at Talladega. Earnhardt Jr. 2nd in both.— Matt Willis (@MattWillisESPN) March 9, 2014
While Keselowski left the track feeling elated, Junior couldn't share that sentiment. He lamented just needing a little bit more fuel to pull off his second win of the season, according to Performance Racing Network (via Jeff Gluck of USA Today):
Dale Jr. tells PRN: "We tried to save as much as we could and make it work ... it's no shock to us to run out."— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) March 9, 2014
Earnhardt Jr. suggested just how close he was to taking his second checkered flag of the year. The 39-year-old referenced sponsor Mountain Dew with crew chief Steve Letarte:
Here is a look at the top 10 finishers from the race. You can view the full leaderboard on NASCAR.com.
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||51|
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||133|
There were no wrecks throughout the race, but there was no shortage of cautions. Debris caused four separate cautions during the first 220 laps.
As he revealed during a conversation with Letarte, Earnhardt Jr. was none too happy with the amount of cautions holding up the race, per Richard Allen of RacingWithRich.com:
"Why do they throw f***ing debris cautions right before the fuel window?" asks Junior. "They don't know when they are," says Letarte.— Richard Allen (@RacingWithRich) March 9, 2014
The debris was also a source of controversy later on in the race, but this time, it benefited Earnhardt Jr., who was leading following the final caution and continued to surge.
Allen provides a look at an exchange between Clint Bowyer and his spotter, who believed there might have been a conspiracy in the works:
"We need a debris caution," says Bowyer. "Junior's leading and that ain't gonna happen," says 15 spotter. "Haha," laughs Bowyer. #NASCAR— Richard Allen (@RacingWithRich) March 9, 2014
Who's the top driver after three races?
Earnhardt Jr. and Keselowski might have been the story of the race—and through this point in the season, for that matter—but Paul Menard also put together a great run and finished third, his best career finish at Las Vegas.
Menard came into the weekend not knowing if he would run and even had Matt Crafton standing by if he needed to be with his wife, who was expecting their first child. But he was able to stay behind the wheel and had a spectacular race.
Drivers will be right back at it again next Sunday in a short-track event during the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, with the green flag waving at 1 p.m. ET on Fox.
Bristol Motor Speedway is the fourth-largest sports venue in America, and you can expect plenty of paint-swapping from the sport's top stars as they navigate the short track. Avoiding wrecks in this one will not be easy.
With 33 races remaining in the 2014 Sprint Cup season, there is still plenty of time for drivers to stake their claim at a chance to win it all. But with Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. unwilling to relinquish the reins, it's hard to imagine any driver overtaking either one for the top spot in the standings.