Sometimes it is a daring move pulled off by a driver in the closing laps of a Sprint Cup race that propels a driver to victory lane, while other times it can be a simple call by a crew chief as the laps wind down that captures the checkered flag.
Brad Keselowski entered Sunday’s race at Las Vegas as the driver to beat as he sat on the outside pole and had posted the speeds in practice to make him the favorite to win the third race of the young season, but it came down to a very simple call by his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, to get the job done.
Finishes like we saw on Sunday are a product of NASCAR’s new format for setting the field for the Chase. It’s basically win and you are in, so what we have been seeing in the closing laps the last two weeks are drivers willing to take a chance on fuel. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead late in the race and appeared on his way to his second win of the season, but his crew chief, Steve Letarte, told him they were going to be close on fuel and to save as much as he could.
Earnhardt did what every driver does in that situation by turning his engine off during caution laps and not pushing his car as hard as he could while he was out front. Letarte knew that it was going to be so close that he actually told Earnhardt that if he ran out of gas on the last lap not to come into the pits but to stay out.
Even as good as Keselowski had been all week long, in the closing laps of the race he found himself behind Carl Edwards who was in second with the laps running out and Earnhardt looking like he was in complete control of the race. That is when Wolfe may have made the call of the day when he told his driver to get to Earnhardt and put pressure on him.
Sometimes crew chiefs make the big bold move of the race by calling for two tires, four tires or even a gas and go as the laps wind down, but all Wolfe did was to tell his driver to start putting the pressure on Earnhardt. Wolfe said after the race that he was sure they had enough fuel to make it to the finish, but he wasn’t sure about Earnhardt although he thought he may be short. Wolfe’s decision to tell his driver to start pressing Earnhardt made sure that this year’s Daytona 500 winner could no longer save fuel and would have to get up on the throttle if he was going to hold off Keselowski.
The call worked as Kesolowski tried several times in the closing laps to pass Earnhardt, only to be held off until they came out of turn two for the last time when Earnhardt’s Chevrolet began to sputter. A half lap was left when Keselowski made the pass to go on to the win, thanks to crew chief Wolfe’s call to begin putting pressure on Earnhardt that ultimately led to him using up all of his Sunoco fuel.
Keselowski now joins Earnhardt and Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick as the only drivers to have a win on the season and is now in a position to roll the dice in the closing laps of a race.
The win and you are in method of setting the Chase field gives every winner between now and the final race before the Chase at Richmond in September the opportunity to not only gamble in the final laps, but in the process forces all of those drivers and crew chiefs still looking for a win to do some gambling of their own. It should make for some fantastic finishes as never has a checkered flag meant so much.
Bristol Motor Speedway will host the first ever “knock out” style of qualifying on a short track on Ford Fan Friday. This new format will feature two rounds of qualifying with all of the cars on the halfmile track for a 30-minute session with the fastest 12 moving into the final 10-minute round with a chance to sit on the pole. Lap times of around 15 seconds will give the field plenty of opportunity to put down a good lap, but it will be crowded with 43 cars on the track at the same time and should be very interesting to watch.
Event: Food City 500
Track: Bristol Motor Speedway
(.533-mile oval, 240-300 of banking
in the turns)
Date: March 16, 1 p.m.
Defending champion: Kasey