706 65 2 LINKEDIN 8 COMMENTMORE

LAS VEGAS — Brad Keselowski loves to do things few drivers have done before, but last year's disappointing season wasn't what he had in mind.

After winning the Sprint Cup Series title in 2012, Keselowski became only the second defending champion to miss NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff.

But Keselowski didn't take long to put that memory in his rear-view mirror this year, driving to victory lane Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas on the final lap.

In just the third week of the season, Keselowski's win virtually assures a playoff berth under NASCAR's new points system.

It has been a decidedly different start for Keselowski — who finished third in the season's opening two races.

Under NASCAR's new championship format, 16 slots are available in the 10-race Chase and the drivers with the most wins make the field first.

COLUMN: Do points matter more in NASCAR's new format?

Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 and Kevin Harvick won last week at Phoenix.

"It's just such a reliever for everyone on the team — myself included — to get that win early and be able to enjoy the opportunities we have instead of being stressed out about them," said Keselowski, whose only win in 2013 came in October, after the championship field was set.

Earnhardt Jr.'s team played the track-position, fuel-mileage game over the closing portion of the race, hoping to stretch a fuel load a lap or two beyond expectations. That gamble looked good until the second turn of the final lap as Earnhardt led Keselowski by several car lengths. But Earnhardt's Chevrolet sputtered at that point as the fuel ran out, and Keselowski swept by for the win.

Earnhardt Jr. coasted across the line in second place, 1.5 seconds behind.

WATCH: The final laps of Sunday's Kobalt 400

"Well, we weren't supposed to make it, so we can't get too down about it," Earnhardt Jr. said over his radio as the race ended.

Crew chief Steve Letarte responded, "I can say one thing: Our math is pretty good."

"Well, we have a first, a second and a second. I'd say we're doing OK to start this deal off," Letarte added.

Keselowski, a chronic overthinker whose mind is never stagnant, peppered crew chief Paul Wolfe with ideas during the offseason to make sure the team would be able to bounce back. The thinking often extends to the races, like it did Sunday when Keselowski made a crucial strategy call.

Spotter Joey Meier said it was the driver who decided not to pit early in the race when everyone else did. That put the No. 2 Ford off-sequence and allowed the team to take advantage of a strong car. It was another example of Keselowski's determination to succeed by taking an unconventional route.

"The one thing about Brad is he likes thinking outside the box and outside the norm," Meier told USA TODAY Sports in a beer-soaked victory lane. "The more people who say it's a fluke, the stronger he pushes and we end up having better results."

Earnhardt Jr. recalled the time Keselowski drove for the JR Motorsports team in the Nationwide Series and kept dreaming up proposals and questions for then-competition director Tony Eury Sr. After awhile, Earnhardt Jr. said, Eury would tell Keselowski to get lost.

"He comes up with 20 ideas and 18 of them are crazy, but two of them are great," Earnhardt Jr. said. "... Brad does that with everything, and that's why he's successful."

That dedication and analytical thinking is not shared by every driver, some of whom rarely appear in the race shops where teams work daily. But the Team Penske driver pops into Wolfe's office enough to wear on the crew chief's patience — though Wolfe said he knows it comes with good intentions.

"You think about the times when you do get frustrated, but I think this is probably a better situation than a guy who doesn't show up at the shop and doesn't understand what's going on," Wolfe said. "Obviously, this win here helps give everybody a little bit of confidence to know that we can get back on top where we were in 2012."

Now that the No. 2 team has won, the already aggressive Wolfe and Keselowski can make even bolder calls like the one which helped the driver pick up his 11th career win Sunday. Keselowski also swept a weekend for the first time in his career; he also won the Nationwide Series race.

"It's like chewing gum," Meier said. "He's always pushing and pushing to get a bigger bubble. Sometimes it bursts and you have to start over again, but it's usually a pretty big bubble."

Contributing: Mike Hembree

PHOTOS: Brad Keselowski through the years

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

Sunday's Kobalt 400 results

1. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267 laps, 134.6 rating, 48 points, $449,048.

2. (14) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 267, 121.7, 43, $263,005.

3. (21) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267, 108.1, 42, $237,719.

4. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, 267, 109.8, 41, $209,596.

5. (11) Carl Edwards, Ford, 267, 88.2, 40, $170,730.

6. (5) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267, 124.8, 39, $186,831.

7. (10) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267, 94, 37, $134,920.

8. (13) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267, 91.2, 36, $137,470.

9. (15) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 267, 102.7, 35, $162,006.

10. (29) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 267, 92.6, 35, $163,281.

11. (20) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267, 108.1, 34, $164,076.

12. (27) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267, 83.1, 33, $121,410.

13. (9) Brian Vickers, Toyota, 267, 83.1, 31, $144,385.

14. (12) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 267, 96.6, 30, $139,068.

15. (7) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 267, 76.4, 29, $144,474.

16. (4) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 267, 82.4, 28, $155,096.

17. (19) Jeff Burton, Toyota, 267, 71.1, 27, $115,960.

18. (18) A J Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 267, 67.7, 26, $125,018.

19. (17) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 266, 76.6, 25, $132,005.

20. (34) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 266, 65.9, 0, $102,060.

21. (22) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 266, 58, 23, $112,060.

22. (25) Greg Biffle, Ford, 266, 52.5, 22, $143,435.

23. (3) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 266, 84.4, 21, $141,851.

24. (43) Marcos Ambrose, Ford, 266, 56, 20, $126,680.

25. (8) Aric Almirola, Ford, 264, 60.3, 19, $136,771.

26. (23) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 264, 62.9, 18, $94,835.

27. (6) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 264, 68.8, 17, $132,960.

28. (30) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 264, 54.6, 16, $120,193.

29. (38) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 264, 50.8, 15, $109,868.

30. (33) David Gilliland, Ford, 264, 54.1, 14, $116,493.

31. (37) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 264, 42.1, 13, $112,682.

32. (26) David Ragan, Ford, 263, 45.2, 12, $102,435.

33. (24) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 263, 40.3, 11, $125,893.

34. (40) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 262, 41.7, 10, $91,535.

35. (39) Ryan Truex, Toyota, 261, 33.5, 9, $91,310.

36. (28) Cole Whitt, Toyota, 261, 41.5, 8, $91,110.

37. (36) Alex Bowman, Toyota, 259, 33.1, 7, $90,883.

38. (41) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 258, 27.3, 6, $85,590.

39. (42) Travis Kvapil, Ford, 253, 27.9, 5, $81,590.

40. (32) Parker Kligerman, Toyota, 240, 28.9, 4, $77,590.

41. (16) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 237, 92.4, 4, $114,623.

42. (31) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 212, 27.9, 2, $69,590.

43. (35) Michael McDowell, Ford, engine, 141, 33.4, 1, $66,090.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 154.633 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 35 minutes, 24 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 1.530 seconds.

Caution Flags: 4 for 18 laps.

Lead Changes: 21 among 10 drivers.

Lap Leaders: J.Logano 1-19; B.Keselowski 20-21; J.Logano 22-46; J.Johnson 47-76; Ky.Busch 77-95; D.Earnhardt Jr. 96-97; Ky.Busch 98-129; K.Harvick 130-139; Ky.Busch 140; B.Keselowski 141; M.Kenseth 142-143; K.Harvick 144-156; B.Keselowski 157-195; J.Johnson 196-198; P.Menard 199-204; J.Johnson 205; D.Earnhardt Jr. 206-210; C.Edwards 211; D.Hamlin 212; B.Keselowski 213-222; D.Earnhardt Jr. 223-266; B.Keselowski 267.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): B.Keselowski, 5 times for 53 laps; Ky.Busch, 3 times for 52 laps; D.Earnhardt Jr., 3 times for 51 laps; J.Logano, 2 times for 44 laps; J.Johnson, 3 times for 34 laps; K.Harvick, 2 times for 23 laps; P.Menard, 1 time for 6 laps; M.Kenseth, 1 time for 2 laps; C.Edwards, 1 time for 1 lap; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 1 lap.

Wins: D.Earnhardt Jr., 1; K.Harvick, 1; Bra.Keselowski, 1.

Sprint Cup Series points: 1. D.Earnhardt Jr., 133; 2. Bra.Keselowski, 132; 3. J.Johnson, 117; 4. J.Logano, 116; 5. J.Gordon, 115; 6. C.Edwards, 105; 7. M.Kenseth, 105; 8. D.Hamlin, 101; 9. R.Newman, 97; 10. Ky.Busch, 95; 11. J.McMurray, 93; 12. G.Biffle, 86.

706 65 2 LINKEDIN 8 COMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1ioUHlk