Race Capsule: Keselowski does the double, as Junior's tank runs dry
In a Nutshell: Brad Keselowski qualified on the front row and stayed near the front row most of the day in Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The No. 2 Miller Lite Ford gained the lead during two different pit sequences under caution during the race, when the Paul Wolfe-led team decided not to pit and others did. But it was the team's decision to pit and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s choice not to that handed Keselowski his first win of the year.
Earnhardt Jr. stayed out on a lap 222 caution and gained the lead and almost had his second race win in three races, when the No. 88 Mountain Dew Chevy ran out of fuel in Turn 2 of the final lap. He still finished 2nd, his worst finish of the year. Other strong cars of the day included Keselowski's Team Penske teammate Joey Logano, who won the pole and led 44 of the first 46 laps. He finished 4th. Kyle Busch led a charge from the back of the pack and passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead on lap 77. Busch placed the No. 18 M&M's Toyota 11th.
Kevin Harvick, the winner at Phoenix last week, also drove from mid-pack into the lead, but had a problem with the left-front hub and went to the garage with 70 laps to go, finishing 41st - he did lead 23 laps. Mechanical problems also plagued some smaller teams, as Michael McDowell retired with engine trouble and finished 43rd. Josh Wise went to the garage early and then returned to the race. Parker Kligerman and Travis Kvapil both also lost significant time with different mechanical gremlins.
The race saw no crashes and mostly single-file racing. Leaders generally had the same aerodynamic advantage they had in past years, though faster cars did finally run leaders down several times. The rest of the top 10 in the race were expectant-father Paul Menard in 3rd (with Camping World Truck Series driver Matt Crafton standing by in relief), Carl Edwards 5th, Jimmie Johnson 6th, Ryan Newman 7th, Kasey Kahne 8th, Jeff Gordon 9th, and last year's winner Matt Kenseth 10th. A large crowd appeared to be on hand for the 3rd race of 2014 and saw a fairly uneventful race full of teams still scratching their heads on how to handle NASCAR's new aerodynamic and setup rules.
RaceTweet: @keselowski wins on last lap as @DaleJr runs out of fuel on last lap at Vegas. #NASCAR still has work to do for cars to pass more.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Brad Keselowski - But barely. Unlike most races with long green flag runs, this race didn't have a standout best car, really. Keselowski led the most laps at 53, but 2nd-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 51, and 11th-place Kyle Busch led 52. Jimmie Johnson also led 34 laps and Joey Logano 44. The best cars all had a shot at the crown and Keselowski came through as Earnhardt Jr. faltered. Keselowski also survived electrical problems in the closing laps to win Saturday's Nationwide Series race, making him the first driver to sweep the weekend since Jeff Burton in 2000. Oh, and he leads the Sprint Cup points by one over Earnhardt Jr., if that matters.
North Korean Missile Dud of the Race: Tony Stewart - His return from injury is remarkable, but the results haven't been. The No. 14 team suffered fuel cell issues at Daytona, finished a pedestrian 16th at Phoenix, and had a poor performance at Las Vegas. Stewart could barely keep up with the pack and the crew raised the hood on pit road during the 2nd set of pit stops. Eventually they got lapped and never recovered, placing 33rd, four laps down. Stewart is 27th in points and hasn't led a lap this year. His teammate Kurt Busch is 28th in points, with similar luck.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Kyle Larson - I had rookie Larson as a dark horse pick to win the race and he may have had a better result, if not for a speeding penalty during the first set of green flag stops. That set the No. 42 Target team back, but Larson managed to hang on during long green flag runs and eventually rise to a respectable 19th, the first car one lap down. Some other drivers would have lost their head and composure, but not Larson. That resilience will breed success down the line.
Wheel of Misfortune: Parker Kligerman - Kligerman and Swan Racing have been bold in 2014. Adding the No. 26 team and Cole Whitt, signing several sponsors, and diving into the highly competitive Sprint Cup Series is no small set of feats. But the big hump this team has to clear is the expensive wear and tear that this effort takes. Kligerman had some kind of mechanical issues Sunday that put him 27 laps down in 40th at the race's end. This newer team with rookie drivers has a lot to learn and improve upon, before being respectable, much less winning. And they can't keep tearing up equipment (they wrecked all three cars they took to Daytona, Whitt was in backup car for the race Sunday). They sit 30th and 43rd in owner's points (Kligerman is 43rd), meaning one or both cars could start missing races, if they are too low in points to take provisionals.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Danica Patrick - Patrick often gets chewed up and spit out at races like these, but the No. 10 Aspen Dental Chevy held its own Sunday. Patrick started falling back during the 2nd green flag run, even getting a bump from Aric Almirola. She complained that the car would bottom out and hit the bumps in the turns and then turn loose. But she hung on and clawed up to a 21st-place finish, one lap down, besting the entire Stewart -Haas Racing team. Patrick may not be driving for a small team, but she is still an underdog driver and deserves props for both staying out of trouble and for making the best out of a mediocre day.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Wait, who is risking what to take wins? Dale Earnhardt Jr. is almost assured a spot in the Chase, so crew chief Steve Letarte's call to not pit, stretch fuel, and go for the win made sense. But what doesn't make sense is why some drivers that need wins aren't doing the same. This is a perfect opportunity for a driver like Danica Patrick or Casey Mears or David Ragan to try and steal a win. Now, they have to be in the position to do it and none was on the lead lap late in the race Sunday when the 88 team made the risky call. But isn't this system supposed to favor more risk taking? Right now, only the safe drivers are taking shots at the moon. This will change the closer we get to Richmond, probably.
NNS RaceTweet: @keselowski takes the NNS race as his battery dies. Not much for NNS regulars to cheer about. Only nine cars on lead lap.
Georgia On My Mind: The biggest Georgia NASCAR star of the week easily was in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, where Chase Elliott was really the only NNS regular who had a good run. Elliott ran in the top 5 all day and even started 2nd next to Kyle Busch on the final restart. He raced side-by-side with his boss Dale Earnhardt Jr. and impressed many. His 5th-place run is shadowed by his No. 9 NAPA Chevy having its front end too low in post-race inspection. That likely will result in a points penalty and hurt his 5th-place points position. Ryan Sieg ran where he should have, placing 22nd and five laps down. The leaders chewed up and spit out the field and Sieg maybe could have finished a couple of spots higher, but spun out with a few laps to go. In the Cup race, David Ragan nearly got spun out by former teammate Greg Biffle in the opening laps and also got busted for speeding on pit road early. That adversity probably didn't hurt Ragan much as his team finished 32nd, four laps down and one spot ahead of Tony Stewart. Reed Sorenson placed 34th and five laps down.
Next: From the 1.5-mile business of Las Vegas to the .5-mile short track in Bristol do the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series travel next weekend. NNS cars race Saturday at 2 p.m. on ESPN2. The Cup Series starts at 1:15 p.m. Sunday on FOX. And knockout qualifying will be a blast for both series, especially since there is no apron for cars to cool down their engines. Close quarters = action.