Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief Steve Letarte said his driver was about a half-lap short on fuel. Damned if he wasn't about right.
Junior's car burped coming off turn two while leading on the final lap of Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas, and Brad Keselowski took advantage for his first win of the season.
The burp was small, but it was noticeable enough for Junior to pull to the inside on the backstretch and allow Keselowski to sail by. By the time the car picked up fuel again, Keselowski was too far gone into turn three.
Even if there wasn't a burp, the battle for the win wouldn't have mattered anyway. Junior's car was out of fuel officially off turn four.
"We weren't going to run first or second had we not stayed out on that strategy," Junior said. "We knew we were a lap short and we tried to save as much as we could. We got it to about a half a lap and it ran out off of two there."
That strategy Junior refers to is the decision by Letarte to stay out when the race's final caution flag flew with 42 laps to go. While the rest of the field came in to top off their fuel tanks, Letarte and Junior elected to stay out to try to stretch the fuel.
Junior had run in the top 10 all day, but with the Daytona 500 win already notched, he and Letarte wanted to go for more bonus points in the Chase. And besides, why not? Staying out was a strategy that worked for Matt Kenseth last year. After a late caution at almost the same point in the race at this one, Kenseth elected not to take tires and he held off Kasey Kahne for the win.
(While Junior says the new Chase format was the catalyst for his team's gamble, we have to wonder, based on past history at Vegas, if a long winless drought would make Letarte and Junior want to go for the win. They've gambled on fuel mileage before.)
Much like how Kenseth's win over Kahne was in doubt until the final corner, the race between Junior and Keselowski was setting up to be as well if it weren't for Junior's gas tank running dry. Keselowski had slowly chipped away at the interval separating the two drivers over the final 20 laps and had pulled up alongside of Junior with four laps to go.
"We needed to put pressure on Dale and not let him get into fuel-save mode," Keselowski said. "Because as you could tell, he was really close."
But not close enough for the win, though Junior now has two second place finishes to go along with the Daytona 500 win in the first three races. And Keselowski isn't too far behind. He finished third in the Daytona 500 and at Phoenix, and trails Junior by a point in the standings.
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