SPARTA, Ky. -- While other drivers chose to pit a lap or two earlier, Brad Keselowski waited until the last possible second -- running out of fuel on pit road, to boot -- to make sure he'd be able to fill up and have enough gas in his tank to make it nearly 60 more laps to the finish line.
That outstanding strategy by crew chief Paul Wolfe proved to be the difference as Keselowski went on to win his series-leading third race of the season, capturing Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
Keselowski's seventh career Cup win all but assures him a spot in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup that begins 10 races from now.
"Three wins feels pretty darned good," said Keselowski, who added to his list of earlier season wins at Bristol and Talladega. "There's never a guarantee, but that's about as close as you can come (to assure himself in the Chase).
"We want to climb up the ladder and not have to worry about the wildcard, but if I have the wins to fall back on, that's a big help."
Even if Keselowski, who came into the race in 10th place in the Sprint Cup standings, ultimately falls out of the top 10 between now and the final Chase qualifying race nine races from now at Richmond in September, he still will likely make NASCAR's 10-race playoff by virtue of his three wins, which would almost certainly guarantee him a wildcard entry into the Chase.
Ironically, even with his third win, Keselowski remained in 10th place in the standings, the same place he was in coming into Saturday's race.
Keselowski held off fast-closing Kasey Kahne, who finished second after two earlier pit road mistakes pushed him back in the pack. Kahne had his sights set on the eventual race winner, but just didn't have enough time or laps left to overtake him.
"I wish we could have got Keselowski because we need those wins, but we still had a good car and came pretty close," Kahne said.
Kahne spearheaded an outstanding effort of all four Hendrick Motorsports teams, with teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishing fourth, Jeff Gordon fifth and Jimmie Johnson sixth.
"Good night, we were fast and good all weekend," said Earnhardt, who was seeking his second win in his last three starts. "It was just a good weekend for us. We would have liked to have a better shot at it at the end. ... I just hope we can keep it up and we can win another race."
Besides Kahne finishing second and Denny Hamlin third, followed by Earnhardt and Gordon. Finishing sixth through 10th were Johnson, current points leader Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger and Kyle Busch.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the fuel mileage outcome was the saga of Carl Edwards, who was running third to Keselowski late in the race, but was forced to pit in the closing laps because he would have run out of fuel.
Instead of ending up with a top five finish, Edwards finished a disappointing 20th.
"I'm definitely frustrated after that," Edwards said with a dejected look on his face. "We had a pretty good carat the end. ... We hoped that there'd be a caution, but there wasn't."
Edwards has struggled all season, has yet to win a race and, with Saturday's finish, remains in 11th place in the standings. He fell to a gaping 130 points behind Kenseth.
"We need to get this in gear and go," Edwards said. "We have to stick together as a team. We're having some bad luck and some bad communication. We can divide right now or come together. We just need to keep it going and get to victory lane for all the people that support us."
As for Kenseth, who earlier in the week shocked the NASCAR world by announcing he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of this season for a still as-yet unnamed team, also had a rough night but was able to rally back late in the race to finish seventh.
"It was a real struggle," said Kenseth, who leads closest challenger Earnhardt by 11 points. "We had as rough of a night on pit road as I can remember. I'm just glad to finish seventh with the uphill battle we had all night." Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart could relate to Edwards' frustration, as mechanical issues forced Stewart to finish a disappointing 32nd -- but even worse, dropped four places in the standings, from fifth to ninth.
On another front, while the nightmarish gridlocked traffic conditions from last year's race did not materialize Saturday, part of the reason may be attributed to the fact that Kentucky Speedway was only about two-thirds to three-quarters full.
Many of those who got caught up in the traffic and lack of parking last year -- some who waited in bumper-to-bumper conditions for over eight hours and wound up missing the race -- vowed not to return after last year's debacle, and that could be another reason for the less-than-full house.