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Keselowski outlasts Earnhardt, wins in Kansas
by Matt Taliaferro
For the second week in a row, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte played the fuel mileage game. And for the second week in a row, they came up just shy.
In the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt’s gas tank ran dry on the final lap, allowing Kevin Harvick to appear out of nowhere to steal a win. In Sunday’s STP 400 from Kansas Speedway, Earnhardt had the fuel, but not the track position. Instead, Brad Keselowski conserved enough gas over a lengthy green-flag run to coast to the checkered flag nearly three seconds in front of Earnhardt’s No. 88 machine.
“I was pushing really hard the run before and drove up to seventh or eighth place, I think,” Keselowski said. “And we were a legitimate top-5 car. We needed to get the clean air to be a car to win the race. I quite honestly felt like Kurt (Busch, teammate) and I were pretty equal. It was just a matter of being up front and having the right track position.
“But, you know, we didn't qualify as well as we’d like to, so we never really found that. Kurt had ’em covered on speed. We had ’em covered on strategy. And at the end a Penske car was going to win and that’s just what happened.”
Busch indeed had the car to beat. His No. 22 Dodge sat on the pole and led a race-high 152 of 267 laps — including 42 of the last 50. However, it was the eight laps he didn’t lead — the final eight — that mattered.
Busch was forced to pit road for a splash of gas on lap 258, handing the lead to Keselowski. Behind the eventual race-winner, Earnhardt slid under Denny Hamlin to take second. With both Earnhardt and Hamlin in good shape fuel-wise, it was only a question of whether Keselowski had saved enough gas to maintain the lead.
“As guys started pitting, I kind of looked at where our lap times were, and it seemed like we started picking up a bunch of speed,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said of his decision to keep Keselowski out. “It was almost a no-brainer for me because we were only losing three to four tenths (of a second, per lap) to the guys on new tires, where normally when guys start short pitting seems like you’re losing over a second a lap.
“But it was like, as everybody started peeling off and pitting we just kept getting faster and faster, and it was like, well, we’re not losing much, so it got us in a position where there were so many cars a lap down, even if the caution came out, we were still sitting OK.
“It was almost a no-brainer for me once I saw how much speed we had in the clean air.”
Earnhardt, who held off Hamlin for second, chuckled when asked his reaction when Letarte told him to start saving fuel.
“Not again,” he said. “Man, (Letarte) was telling me that whole run, ‘We’re good, we’re fine.’ Then we got within 10 to go and he said, ‘Back it down, back it down.’
“‘What? I thought we was good!’ He said, ‘No, we’re going to run out right at the flag stand.’ And it did. The gauge was red.”
Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was Keselowski’s second career Cup victory. The first came in 2009 at Talladega, when he and Edwards tangled in the tri-oval on the final lap, sending Edwards’ Ford into the catchfencing. Ironically, Earnhardt — who Keselowski drove for in the Nationwide Sereis from 2007-09 — finished second that day, as well.