Keselowski let it ride in Vegas

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LAS VEGAS -- Oh, Lady Luck.

Really?

On Friday, Penske Racing drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski qualified 1-2 for Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

On Saturday, Roger Penske plunked a hole-in-one on the par-3 No. 4 at Augusta National. Then later in the day Keselowski celebrated a Nationwide Series victory at the 1.5-mile tri-oval.

But Sunday was the topper.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel on the backstretch of the final lap. Keselowski, in position to win thanks to some fearless driving throughout and critical calls by crew chief Paul Wolfe, overtook the Sprint Cup Series points leader going into the final turn to ultimately sweep the weekend -- and all but lock down a spot in the Chase.

Only in Vegas.

For Keselowski, who failed to make the 2013 Chase a year after hoisting the Sprint Cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the victory helps erase a season of mostly misery.

NASCAR shook up the Chase-qualifying format in the offseason, putting a premium on wins. This year, each race winner is virtually a lock to make the playoff, a point that did not go unnoticed by Keselowski on Sunday.

"I'm glad to be back here in Victory Lane," an elated Keselowski said afterward. "It's very special to get a win early in the year when it's such a relief for everyone on the team and myself included to get that win early and be able to enjoy the racing opportunities that we have instead of being stressed out about them."

With a season-opening victory in the Daytona 500 in the bag, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte could afford to take a big swing Sunday, rolling the dice on fuel. It came up snake eyes.

"The 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 [points] format," Keselowski said.

"I felt like we could run him down," he added. "I could tell he was saving a little bit based on the lines he was running compared to where I had seen him earlier in the day ... It was going to play out one of two ways: He was going to have to be 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."

For Earnhardt, six simple words told the story:

"That's all we needed ... 16 ounces."

As in fuel.

The final restart proved pivotal. With 42 laps to go, Earnhardt charged ahead, but Keselowski -- who restarted sixth -- picked up four positions after one lap. He overtook Carl Edwards, then the cat-and-mouse game initiated. Earnhardt would back off, saving fuel, and Keselowski would close. Again and again.

With laps winding down and the No. 2 Ford filling up his rearview, Earnhardt had no option but to run wide open through the checkers. That played right into Keselowski's hands.

"We weren't supposed to make it. We were a lap short," Earnhardt said. "I was lifting early and would let Brad get there, and I felt like if we were good enough to hold him off, then we'd win the race, and if we weren't, we'd save enough fuel to finish the race."

They did accomplish that. Earnhardt finished second, and now has consecutive runner-up efforts after winning at Daytona. Paul Menard ended up third, followed by Logano and Edwards.

Despite the disappointment, Earnhardt and Letarte clearly have their program figured out. They won on a restrictor-plate track (Daytona), finished second on a short track (Phoenix) and came oh-so-close to reaching Victory Lane on a mile-and-a-half -- and intermediate tracks make up the bulk of the Cup schedule.

In other words, the Earnhardt-Letarte Farewell Tour -- Letarte is heading to the broadcast booth after this season -- should be feared moving forward.

We knew the Penske gang had the setups figured out for the new elimination-style qualifying format heading into Sunday's race. It had also swept the front row a week earlier at Phoenix, with Keselowski taking the pole and Logano starting second. They finished third and fourth, respectively, in that race.

On Sunday, Team Penske ran the table.

"The poles the [past] two weekends really have made a huge difference," Penske said. "Joey has stepped up now, and we really have two great drivers, not only for today but long term when you look at our team and the average age.

"To me it was a rewarding weekend, realizing that the way the rules are, to have a driver that has won a race, that really almost qualifies him, I think, for the Chase, especially after the tough year he had last year."

Of course, a little luck never hurts.

Penske said he couldn't believe the amount of publicity his hole-in-one attracted. His thoughts were with the man -- William Clay Ford Sr. died at 88 on Sunday -- who once helped run the company that backs Penske's team.

"We know we lost William Clay Ford today, a patriarch of the Ford family, someone who obviously has meant so much to Detroit, the automobile business on a worldwide basis and certainly to the 'big three,' and I take my hat off and my thoughts and prayers to his family.

"It's ironic: He and I joined Augusta the same time back many years ago, and to think today we won this race. So I'm going to give this race to William Clay Ford."

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