By Jim Utter
LAS VEGAS: The champ is back.
Brad Keselowski, who won his first Sprint Cup Series championship in 2012 but missed the Chase last year, is all but guaranteed a spot in this season’s Chase with a stunning victory in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
While Keselowski was strong all weekend and in the race, his victory wasn’t ensured until Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel while leading on the final lap.
Earnhardt coasted to second, Paul Menard finished third, Joey Logano was fourth and Carl Edwards was fifth.
Three races into the 2014 season and three drivers have virtually ensured a spot in this season’s Chase under the new format — Keselowski, Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick.
Logano, the pole-winner, led the first 19 laps of the race before losing the lead under the first caution.
Fluid on the track brought out a caution on Lap 18. While most drivers were pitting, Keselowski stayed on the track and took over the lead.
Logano reclaimed the lead on the restart and remained out front again until another caution was displayed for debris on Lap 46.
After pit stops, Jimmie Johnson took over the lead on the restart on Lap 50, followed by Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr.
Kyle Busch, who struggled early in the race, ran down the leader and took over the top spot on Lap 77.
A round of green-flag pit stops began on Lap 91. Once they were completed on Lap 99, Busch remained the leader followed by Johnson and Earnhardt. During the round of stops, Kyle Larson was penalized for speeding on pit road.
Harvick methodically ran down Busch and took over the lead on Lap 130.
Another round of green-flag pit stops began on Lap 141. Once they were completed on Lap 144, Harvick remained out front followed by Busch and Johnson. During the round of stops, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was penalized for speeding on pit road.
Debris on the backstretch brought out the race’s third caution on Lap 155. Most of the lead-lap cars pit for fuel and tires but once again Keselowski elected not to pit. He took over the lead on the restart on Lap 161 followed by Busch and Harvick.
With 100 laps remaining, Keselowski continued to hold a comfortable lead over Harvick.
On Lap 194, Harvick headed unexpectedly to pit road while running in second. After reaching his pit stall, his team pored over the car and found his problems with the left-front wheel hub. Harvick eventually took his No. 4 Chevrolet to the garage.
“It’s hard to complain,” Harvick said. “Little parts failure there. We’ll figure out the cause of it.”
Keselowski was forced to pit for fuel on Lap 197, which left Johnson in a battle for the lead with Menard. Menard moved into the top spot on Lap 199.
The rest of the teams began a round of green-flag pit stops on Lap 204. Once the stops were completed on Lap 213, Keselowski returned to the lead followed by Menard and Johnson.
Debris on the front stretch brought out a caution on Lap 221. Most of the lead-lap cars pit for fuel but Earnhardt stayed out and took over the race lead on the restart on Lap 226 followed by Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Menard and Busch.
With 10 laps remaining, Earnhardt remained out front but Keselowski was charging hard in second.