Mar 9, 2014, 5:58 PM EST
On a somber day for the Ford Motor Company, Brad Keselowski gave the Blue Oval camp a reason to smile.
Keselowski went on to claim his first career Sprint Cup victory on the 1.5-mile Vegas oval, which enabled him to pull within one point of Earnhardt for the Sprint Cup championship lead going into next weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The victory also came hours after William Clay Ford, the director emeritus of the Ford Motor Company and owner/chairman of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, passed away at the age of 88 from pneumonia.
As a native of Rochester Hills, Michigan – not far from the manufacturer’s world headquarters in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn – Keselowski is aware of the impact Mr. Ford had on his community.
“He’s a big deal where I’m from in Detroit,” he said to Fox Sports in Victory Lane. “We want to say our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
But while he paid tribute to Mr. Ford, Keselowski was also thrilled to have virtually ensured his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after failing to qualify for the postseason last year.
Shortly after the final restart with 42 laps to go, Keselowski found himself battling Carl Edwards (who, along with Earnhardt, had stayed out on that previous yellow) for second before managing to get past the fellow Ford driver for the position.
That enabled him to go after Earnhardt, who had been told by crew chief Steve Letarte that he was likely to come up narrowly short on fuel.
“Carl Edwards helped me out there – he gave me a little break so I could go run down the 88 and that’s what we needed for a Ford to win,” Keselowski said. “We needed to put pressure on Dale and not let him get into fuel save mode, because you could tell he was getting close.”
With four laps remaining, Keselowski briefly took the lead from Earnhardt on the inside of Turn 1 but lost it back one turn later as Earnhardt got a great run off the high line.
Earnhardt pulled out to a half-second lead by the time the white flag came out. But unfortunately for him and Letarte, the latter’s prediction proved correct.
“We weren’t gonna run first or second had we not stayed out on that strategy,” said Earnhardt, who coasted home for the runner-up finish. “We knew we were a lap short and tried to save as much as we could. We got it to half a lap [short] and it ran out off of [Turn] 2 there.
“We took the gamble and didn’t win the race but it still worked in our favor to run second. It gave us a chance to win. It sucks to lose like that but we can’t let that be a negative. We gotta go to Bristol and try to win there, and the only way to be productive is to be positive.”
Paul Menard put together a stout run for Richard Childress Racing, finishing third for his best finish since his third-place run back in October 2012 at Kansas Speedway.
But don’t expect Menard to celebrate Vegas-style as he has very important business to attend to back home in North Carolina: The birth of his first child.
“Daytona was really good for us and we struggled at Phoenix but these guys never gave up,” said Menard, who recorded his third consecutive Top-10 at Las Vegas.
“The car was really good on long runs. On Thursday, we had a test day and we were really good on race trim. We had no speed at all in qualifying trim, but we went back to race trim and it was fast again…It’s something we can definitely build on for mile-and-a-half [tracks].”
Pole sitter Joey Logano recorded his second straight fourth-place finish, while Edwards went on to round out the Top 5.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
Kobalt 400 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway
1) Brad Keselowski
2) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
3) Paul Menard
4) Joey Logano
5) Carl Edwards
6) Jimmie Johnson
7) Ryan Newman
8) Kasey Kahne
9) Jeff Gordon
10) Matt Kenseth
11) Kyle Busch
12) Denny Hamlin
13) Brian Vickers
14) Martin Truex Jr.
15) Jamie McMurray
16) Austin Dillon
17) Jeff Burton
18) A.J. Allmendinger
19) Kyle Larson
20) Trevor Bayne
21) Danica Patrick
22) Greg Biffle
23) Clint Bowyer
24) Marcos Ambrose
25) Aric Almirola
26) Kurt Busch
27) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
28) Casey Mears
29) Michael Annett
30) David Gilliland
31) Justin Allgaier
32) David Ragan
33) Tony Stewart
34) Reed Sorenson
35) Ryan Truex
36) Cole Whitt
37) Alex Bowman
38) Timmy Hill
39) Travis Kvapil
40) Parker Kligerman
41) Kevin Harvick
42) Josh Wise
43) Michael McDowell
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