Brad Keselowski streaked past a spluttering Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to take his first victory of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and all but secure his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Keselowski had a strong car all weekend, securing the front row of the grid alongside his Penske team-mate, Joey Logano, for the second week running. The victory also meant Keselowski completed a Las Vegas clean sweep, having beaten Kyle Busch to the flag in a dramatic Nationwide Series race the day before.
“That was a heckuva call throughout the race to get us some track position and clean air,” said Keselowski, having switched to a different strategy from the rest of the leaders. “At end, the car was really fast. I’m really proud of the car and proud of the team for giving me a car that fast. This is a big deal for Ford. They have done a lot and worked really hard to get all the Ford teams better. Carl Edwards helped me out by giving me a little break so we could go run down the 88. That’s what we needed, we need to put some pressure on Dale and not let him get to into fuel-saving mode.”
As if winning wasn’t enough for Keselowski, the victory means that he is already as good as in the Chase, something he failed to achieve in 2013, despite taking the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
“We’re locked into Chase and I don’t have to hear that crap all year about not being in the Chase,” he concluded.
The race appeared to be going the way of the #88, who was continuing his immense run of form, having decided to stay out in a late caution period while the other leaders dived in to the pits for fuel. Both Earnhardt, Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte knew that it was going to be a close run to the line, with Letarte telling his driver over the radio he would probably run out with three quarters of a lap to go.
The car finally gave up, as Letarte had predicted, with three quarters of a lap remaining, allowing Keselowski to breeze past for the win. The Daytona 500 winner still managed to bring the car home in second, gifting Earnhardt his third top-2 result in three races and the best start to a Sprint Cup season of his career.
“It sucks to lose like that but we can’t let this be a negative,” said Earnhardt. “We’ve got to go to Bristol and try to win there. The only way to be productive is to be positive. We have to be positive about the day and keep working toward our goal of winning more races. It’s tough losing like that, it’s disappointing.”
Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win means he already has a spot in the Chase alongside Keselowski and Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick, allowing the team to attempt more risky strategies without the fear of missing out on a Chase spot because of a bad call.
“It gives us freedom, and that’s nice to have that freedom to do the things we did today, even though we knew our odds weren’t good,” Earnhardt said of the new Chase format. “We shouldn’t have made it, and we didn’t. But we got to try it because of the new system.”
After a strong showing throughout the race, Paul Menard took third, followed by the two Fords of Logano and Edwards. Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top ten.
Elsewhere, Stewart-Haas Racing endured a tough weekend, with Harvick unable to continue his Phoenix form when a brake problem forced him to lose 30 laps off the lead, having been chasing down Keselowski in the second half of the race. Danica Patrick was the highest finishing Stewart-Haas driver, finishing in 21st. Kurt Busch finished down in 26th, while team owner Tony Stewart could only manage 33rd.