By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
LAS VEGAS – Overcoming a pit road speeding penalty with daring late-race strategy, Brad Keselowski broke a 33-race drought with a victory in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Keselowski passed Las Vegas native Kyle Busch with five laps left to win for the first time since the fifth race of 2015 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion beat Team Penske shopmate Joey Logano to the finish line by .675 seconds, as Busch lost ground over the closing laps.
Rain delayed the start of the race, and high winds and a late-race dust storm made visibility a challenge, but the bizarre conditions left Keselowski undeterred. Nor did a pit road speeding penalty under caution on Lap 180 prove catastrophic, thanks to a series of astute pit calls by crew chief Paul Wolfe.
“This is really, really great,” said Keselowski, who lauded the lower-downforce aerodynamic package in place for the 2016 season. “It seemed like there were plenty of challenges, whether it was pit road or the weather or cautions.
“They threw everything they had at us today but this Miller Lite Ford team was too strong, and we were able to fight them off and get to victory lane.”
Relative to the field, Keselowski picked up speed toward the end of a run with a car that was eminently maneuverable. Busch’s car took off early but couldn’t maintain its pace late in a fuel run.
“He (Busch) had a really good short-run car, but it fell off on the long run,” Keselowski said. “That’s part of this new package. Some are good on short runs and some are good on long runs, and we had a really good long-run car today.”
Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson beat Busch to the finish line by .018 seconds to secure third place. Austin Dillon ran fifth, and rookie Ryan Blaney came home sixth, posting a career-best finish on an open-motor race track.
The victory was Keselowski’s second at LVMS and the 18th of his career, but it wouldn’t have been possible if Wolfe hadn’t elected to keep the No. 2 Ford on the track on Lap 217 when all but Keselowski, Logano and Dillon pitted for tires and fuel under the fifth caution of the race.
It took 38 laps, however, for the benefits of the strategy to become apparent — thanks to Busch’s remarkable restart on Lap 224. From the sixth position, Busch powered his No. 18 Toyota to the outside of Johnson’s Chevrolet, picked up huge momentum off the second corner, dived to the inside and shot past both Logano and Keselowski entering Turn 3.
One lap later, a multi-car wreck in Turn 1 ended strong runs by Matt Kenseth and rookie Chase Elliott, but the seven laps run under the resulting sixth and final caution enabled Keselowski, Logano and Dillon to stretch their fuel supplies to the end of the race.
Busch streaked away on the Lap 233 restart but developed a pronounced vibration in the right front of this car, and the chase group of Keselowski, Logano and Johnson closed in. Keselowski passed Logano for the second spot on Lap 259 of 267 and steaked past Busch three laps later.
“I tried to hold him off as long as I could, but he showed how fast he was getting by me and Kyle and checking out,” Logano said after the 1-2 finish. “Congratulations to Team Penske. It’s something to be very proud of for our team.
“We have a lot of second-place finishes already this year. I know we’re only three races in, but I’m getting antsy. We have good speed in our cars — we’ll be all right.”
The call to stay out on Lap 217 proved decisive for the Penske Fords, but the decision to sacrifice track position for four tires on Lap 199 (when most others opted for right sides only), made the strategy possible.
“The way I look at it, if you’re going to do two tires, you got to get that clean air,” Wolfe said. “Otherwise, we’ll take four all day long. It gives you opportunities at the end to do some different strategies to get that track position back.
“Obviously we knew when the caution fell there, we were still short on fuel. At that point it was worth the risk to take the gamble and hope for the cautions. Obviously, we got those and were able to get to Victory Lane.”
Busch retained the top spot in the series standings and leads Johnson and seventh-place finisher Kevin Harvick by seven points. Logano is fourth, 11 points back.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race – Kobalt 400
1. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267.
2. (2) Joey Logano, Ford, 267.
3. (11) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267.
4. (23) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267.
5. (5) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 267.
6. (14) * Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 267.
7. (6) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 267.
8. (20) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 267.
9. (1) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 267.
10. (8) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267.
11. (10) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 267.
12. (16) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 267.
13. (21) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267.
14. (12) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 267.
15. (15) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267.
16. (29) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 267.
17. (28) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 267.
18. (24) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 267.
19. (9) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267.
20. (26) Greg Biffle, Ford, 267.
21. (18) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 267.
22. (35) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 267.
23. (22) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 267.
24. (7) Aric Almirola, Ford, 266.
25. (33) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 266.
26. (25) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 266.
27. (32) Brian Scott #, Ford, 266.
28. (27) Landon Cassill, Ford, 266.
29. (30) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 266.
30. (37) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 265.
31. (34) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 263.
32. (31) David Ragan, Toyota, 262.
33. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt #, Ford, 262.
34. (17) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 262.
35. (39) * Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 259.
36. (19) Brian Vickers, Chevrolet, 257.
37. (3) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, Accident, 224.
38. (13) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, Accident, 224.
39. (36) * Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, Vibration, 115.
Image: Robert Laberge/Getty Images