The Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway came down to a calculated risk between two of the hottest teams early in NASCAR’s 2014 season.
The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports bunch and driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. had finishes of first and second entering the event. Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske crew weren’t far behind, with consecutive third-place runs to open the year.
Fittingly, the strategy that came into play focused on these Chevrolet and Ford flagbearers.
Just don’t call what happened in Vegas a “gamble” or any other clichéd racing term typically reserved for results in the famous gaming town.
No, the call Earnhardt’s crew chief Steve Letarte made in the final 60 laps of the affair was simply the logical one: Use pit strategy to obtain all-important track position and push fuel mileage on the No. 88 Chevy to the limit. It was a call not too different than what propelled Matt Kenseth to the win in the very same race last season.
It worked for Kenseth; in only his third race with Joe Gibbs Racing, he hit paydirt in 2013 on a track-position play. In Earnhardt’s case, the strategy came up a half-lap short.
That’s when the car sputtered — on the backstretch of the final lap — and handed victory to Keselowski, whose gameplan was to have plenty of fuel and two fresh tires to apply pressure to Earnhardt over the final 42 laps.
“I could tell he was saving a little bit (of fuel) based on the lines he was running compared to where I had seen him earlier in the day,” Keselowski said. “Once I saw that, we ran him down (in) 10, 15 laps and forced him to kind of get up into his speed line, and that was just taking fuel from his car.
“It was going to play out one of two ways: He was going to have to get in fuel conservation mode and I think I could have passed him and drove away or he was going to have to burn fuel to keep me behind him. At that point it was just a matter of whether a yellow came out or not because it was just a ticking time bomb, and it worked in our favor today.”
The win all but guarantees Keselowski of a Chase berth in NASCAR’s expanded playoff format. Earnhardt, whose win the Daytona 500 two weeks ago gave the team the freedom to utilize such a strategy, coasted to a runner-up showing.
“I just couldn’t (gain) any ground, and we fought the car all day,” Earnhardt said of battling traffic in the field. “The air is so dirty behind everybody, the further back you get you’ve got less and less grip. Once we got the lead, it was like driving a Cadillac.”
Letarte used pit sequencing slightly off-kilter to get Earnhardt to the point on lap 223 of 267. He led until Keselowski rocketed by on the final lap.
“It did pay off,” Earnhardt said. “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. If we’d have run the same strategy as our competitors, we would have probably run just inside the top 10 where we were all day.”
Translation: This was no crew chief gamble gone wrong — it was solid race strategy that a team confident in its playoff standing has the ability to employ.
“It gives us freedom, and it’s nice to have that freedom to do the things that we did today even though we knew our odds weren't good. We really shouldn’t have made it (on fuel), and we didn’t, but we got to try.”
Paul Menard, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
For his part, Keselowski, who failed to make the Chase last year after winning the title in 2012, relishes having the same freedom Earnhardt’s team exhibited Sunday.
“I think that shows some of the opportunities that come up and how they can be stress-free days, “Keselowski said. “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 Paul’s not, so look out. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.