By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Las Vegas is a city built on gamblers, so a bit of gambling would only be natural when NASCAR rolled into town back in March 2014. Except this time, the gamble didn’t quite work out for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as his fuel tank ran dry a half a lap from the finish, allowing Brad Keselowski to streak by for the win.
“Sorry buddy, I tried,” Earnhardt’s crew chief Steve Letarte said over the team radio.
“Good job, man,” Earnhardt replied. “That’s a tough loss there. We wouldn’t have run second if we hadn’t of done that.”
Joey Logano would start the 267 lap Kobalt 400 on the pole, leading 44 of the first 46 laps of the race before ceding the lead over to Jimmie Johnson.
As the race played out, a handful of drivers would take their turn up front including Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick (who exited the race early due to wheel hub failure), Matt Kenseth, Paul Menard, Carl Edwards, and Denny Hamlin.
The lead belonged to Keselowski, who had bounced back from an earlier brush with the wall, when the final caution of the day came out for debris on lap 222, bringing pit strategy into the mix.
While the majority of the leaders pitted, Earnhardt and a few others elected to stay out on track and gamble that they would have enough fuel to the finish, putting him in the lead with 45 laps to go. Having run in the top-10 throughout the day, it was going to be his best shot at taking home the win.
Earnhardt took off with the lead when the race went back green for the final time, with the two others that had stayed out with him, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, following behind.
After Earnhardt had built a lead of more than two seconds as the laps wound down, his biggest challenger in Keselowski finally worked his way up to second place on lap 245 and set his sights on chasing down the leader over the next 22 laps.
By the time the race reached three laps to go, Earnhardt was in full fuel save mode and Keselowski was just under three-tenths back.
Though he kept the 2012 series champion at bay over the next two and a half laps, his luck and fuel tank finally ran dry halfway down the backstretch, allowing Keselowski to pass him by en route to the win, while he had to settle for second place.
“It’s very special to get a win early in the year when it’s just such a reliever for everyone on the team and myself included to get that win in early and be able to enjoy the races and opportunities that we have instead of being stressed out about them,” Keselowski said.
“That chance that Dale and Stevie took with the 88 car was way out there, and it was a good, risky move on their part because they had nothing to lose because of this format.
“It was going to play out one of two ways: He was going to have to get in fuel conservation mode and I think I could have passed him and drove away or he was going to have to burn fuel to keep me behind him. At that point it was just a matter of whether a yellow came out or not because it was just a ticking time bomb, and it worked in our favor today.”
Following Keselowski and Earnhardt to the line would be Menard, Logano, and Edwards rounding out the top-five.
“You know, it did pay off,” said Earnhardt. “Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second. We weren’t going to — as much as you want to win, and believe me, we were out there trying to win, you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish, and we weren’t going to run in the top 5 if we hadn’t have used that particular strategy, if we’d have run the same strategy as our competitors we would have probably run just inside the top 10 where we were all day.
“It’s disappointing, but at the same time the good Lord has blessed me with a good team and good fortune and great opportunity, so I don’t want to get too down and think about the positives and be productive so we can go to Bristol and try to win there.”