On a Sunday at Dover that saw the Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch lead the first 311 laps only to be usurped by Jimmie Johnson on pit road under caution, Brad Keselowski lurked in the weeds behind them and struck when everyone's fuel supply started dwindling, taking the AAA 400 for his second win of the Chase and seizing the points lead by five over Johnson.
Keselowski emerged from the final set of caution flag pit stops third, ahead of Hamlin and behind Johnson and Busch, but when the field took the green flag after a second caution flag for Matt Kenseth, he immediately radioed his crew that the car was hitting the splitter in the corners. At that point, it was looking like simply a race to stay as close as possible to Johnson, who entered the day with the points lead.
The combination of Keselowski, Wolfe and the Penske engine program has meant some of the best fuel mileage in the Cup Series. The race stayed green until the finish. You can guess what that meant.
Johnson held onto the lead after the restart and maintained his advantage over Busch, who had been almost untouchable since taking the lead from Hamlin after lap 36. Hamlin had snuck by Keselowski for third, but the JGR cars were going to be short on fuel. Keselowski's only competition was going to be Johnson, who was right on the edge of making it to the finish under power.
As the laps ticked down, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus made the decision to back off to save fuel, knowing that the JGR cars couldn't make it to the finish. Busch went by. Hamlin went by. And then Keselowski closed in on his bumper. It was going to be a battle for the race win and the Chase lead.
Keselowski's presence and superior mileage meant that Johnson couldn't be in full conservation anymore. He needed to stay ahead of the Blue Deuce, who could make it to the finish.
Did that force Johnson to push the fuel envelope more than he wanted? After Keselowski snuck by with less than 15 laps to go, Knaus told Johnson, who ended up third behind teammate Jeff Gordon, that he was a lap short on fuel and to back it down even further, allowing Keselowski to pull away and play his own conservation game to ensure that he would have plenty of fuel in the tank at the end and be atop the Sprint Cup points standings.
But Keselowski said after the race that it's still too early to consider he and his team the favorite in the Chase.
"There are seven races to go and it feels great to win, I'm so proud of my team, but I can't state loudly enough how much longer this battle is," Keselowski said. "It's very tempting, whether it's the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying 'such-and-such has control of this Chase' but there's a reason why it's 10 rounds. And we're not even halfway, we're three rounds in, and by no means do I think we're the favorite. Certainly we're not the underdog probably at this point, but you know, I think there's so much racing to go and so many opportunities for things to go wrong, or right, for anyone out there, that it's way too early to point those fingers and say those things."
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