One season served as a painful reminder of what Brad Keselowski was not able to do after winning the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship.
One race put Keselowski back where he wants to be – as a title contender.
Keselowski, who failed to qualify for the last season’s championship Chase after winning the 2012 title, all but guaranteed a return to the Chase this season with a stunning victory in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The final laps featured a duel between friends with vastly different agendas but likely envisioned by NASCAR officials when they adapted the new Chase for the Cup format.
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Dale Earnhardt, already with a win this season and with it a spot in the Chase, was gambling on fuel in hopes of securing a second victory. Keselowski was working hard to earn his first victory of the season and cash in on the same caution-to-the-wind strategy Earnhardt’s team now enjoys.
On the final of 267 laps, Earnhardt ran out of fuel and Keselowski bolted to the victory. Earnhardt still managed to coast home to a runner-up finish.
“It’s just such a reliever for everyone on the team and myself included to get that win in early and be able to enjoy the races and opportunities that we have instead of being stressed out about them,” said Keselowski, who picked up the 11th win of his career.
“You know, I think if anything it actually lends itself to better racing. That chance that Dale and (crew chief) Stevie (Letarte) took was way out there, and it was a good, risky move on their part because they had nothing to lose because of this format.”
Keselowski said he now awaits more “stress-free days.”
“I’m looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities, because believe me, I’m not scared to take them, and I know (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) is not, so look out,” he said.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
“We like opportunities and you’ve got to work hard and make the most of them,” he said. “I’m just proud so far we’ve been able to do that.
“It will take a lot of work to stay where we’re at, but I think everybody on this team is committed to do that and we’ll just keep going.”
Earnhardt, who opened the 2014 season with a victory in the Daytona 500, had the fans in the grandstands on their feet as they awaited another win.
While disappointed in the finish, Earnhardt was not disappointed in the decision to roll the dice on fuel mileage.
“I think everybody has seen that over the last couple of weeks that this format has definitely allowed teams to gamble like we have,” Earnhardt said. “You know, it did pay off. Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second.
“As much as you want to win, and believe me, we were out there trying to win, you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish, and we weren’t going to run in the Top 5 if we hadn’t have used that particular strategy.”
Sunday’s race was the first where the new aerodynamic rules NASCAR put in place in the offseason received their first real tryout. The rules are largely designed to improve the qualify of racing on 1.5-mile intermediate tracks like Las Vegas.
Like any new changes, there appeared to be mixed results. Organizations like Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports appear to have a good grasp of new package, but several teams – particularly Joe Gibbs Racing – have struggled.
“The cars continue to get harder and harder to drive in traffic as they make more downforce. It’s something that’s happening throughout all motorsports, not just NASCAR,” Keselowski said.
Paul Menard finished third, pole-winner Joey Logano was fourth and Carl Edwards was fifth.
Earnhardt continues to lead the series standings and he, Kevin Harvick and now Keselowski are for all practical purposes locked in the championship Chase this year with their wins.