SPARTA, Ky. -- Brad Keselowski all but locked up his position in this season's Chase for the Sprint Cup, winning his third race of the season, capturing the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
Keselowski, whose previous wins earlier this season came at Bristol and Talladega, needed every drop of fuel in the tank of his Dodge Charger to make it to the finish line, while other challengers knew they'd ultimately wind up short on fuel.
Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, used excellent pit strategy, calling his driver in to pit for fuel on Lap 212, while most other drivers pitted two or three laps earlier. Keselowski ran out of fuel coming onto pit road, but had enough momentum to not only make it to his pit stall, but miraculously managed to keep his lead in the race at the time.
That margin ultimately proved to be the difference as Keselowski, who becomes the first driver in the series to win three races this season, had just enough gas to make it to victory lane, while other drivers and crew chiefs feared they'd come up short and were forced to pit or simply ran out of fuel in the closing laps.
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.
Kasey Kahne finished second, followed by Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Finishing sixth through 10th were Jimmie Johnson, current points leader Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger and Kyle Busch.
Hamlin was the most commanding driver in the middle part of the race, taking the point and looking very strong.
With 100 laps left, Hamlin was keeping Johnson at bay, but it was very close. Johnson almost looked like he was stalking Hamlin, waiting for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota to make a mistake that Johnson could capitalize upon.
Finally, on Lap 189, Johnson got around Hamlin to take the top spot, leading an onslaught that saw Hendrick Motorsports teammates Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. close to fourth and fifth, respectively, as well.
Less than 10 laps later, Earnhardt passed Gordon just before the 200-lap mark to move into fourth place, giving hope to his millions of fans of potentially reaching victory lane for the second time in three races.
Unfortunately for him, it was not to be, but still proved to be yet another strong showing out of Earnhardt and the No. 88 Chevrolet, who has been the most consistent driver in NASCAR this season.
The first half of the race saw front row pole sitters Johnson and Busch (who won last year's debut Cup race at Kentucky Speedway) pacing the field, although Keselowski made a strong bid to show he was someone to be reckoned with, hovering near the top of the field much of the time.
Kenseth, who stunned the NASCAR world earlier in the week by announcing he would leave his longtime home at Roush Fenway Racing, started 20th but moved up close to the top 10 about one-third of the way through.
Any fears that Kenseth or his team may not give it 100 percent in light of the news of his departure at season's end were quickly dispelled when Kenseth showed how competitive he and his car were --likewise with the performance of his crew on pit stops.
At the 100-lap point of the scheduled 267-lap event, Busch maintained a slim lead over Keselowski, with Johnson a close third, followed by Hamlin, Clint Bowyer (who won last Sunday on the road course at Sonoma), Allmendinger, Earnhardt (won two weeks ago at Michigan), Truex, Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle.
Several veteran drivers struggled early due primarily to tightness in their race cars, including Gordon and Kevin Harvick.
But it was defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart who suffered the biggest problems early on. Stewart was forced to the pits just past 30 laps into the race with a misfiring car.
When his crew was unable to diagnose the problem, his car was pushed to the garage for further work. Stewart briefly returned to the track a few laps later, but he managed just one lap with a terrible-sounding car before returning to the garage for good.
Finishing so far back in the pack is going to cause Stewart to take a big drop in the standings. He came into Saturday night's race in fifth place in the points.
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.