In a case of déjà vu from last week’s Coca-Cola 600, fuel mileage once again decided the race winner as Brad Keselowski, who managed to take the lead with nine laps to go when teammate Kurt Busch pitted. From there, Keselowski made his fuel hold out to claim victory in the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway Sunday afternoon.
“It was hot out there.” remarked an exhausted yet elated Keselowski. “We’ve been so close. We’ve been plugging away. We had a car that I thought was capable of winning. I had a car last week that sat on the pole and had a shot at it and just caught the wrong line on the restart. The same thing at Dover and Darlington, we could just never catch that good break. You can only put yourself in that position so many times before you’re going to catch the right break. We caught a great break today because of all the hard work by the Miller Lite team that works on these Dodge Chargers. We got great gas mileage and that doesn’t hurt either.”
Kurt Busch won the pole for the race, qualifying at 174.752 mph. After complaining of a tight car at the very beginning of the race, Busch’s car came to him and he came roaring back to the front after 18 laps and dominated the next 65 laps, leading all but two of them.
Kurt Busch held the lead through the first round of stops under caution and continued to hold on up front until lap 84, when Carl Edwards took the lead away. Edwards led until the second caution of the day came out for debris on Lap 111.
Kyle Busch took the lead away in the pits and led for a few laps before Denny Hamlin took over the top spot on lap 117. Two laps later, the third caution of the day came out when Landon Cassill slapped the wall exiting Turn 4 after contact with Marcos Ambrose.
When the race went back to green, Hamlin and Tony Stewart traded the lead back and forth before caution number four of the afternoon came out on Lap 154 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a solo spin in Turn 4 after apparently driving over a tar-covered seam on the track. The No. 88 was undamaged, but it was a big turning point in the event. Earnhardt, Jr. was forced change his strategy since the spin killed his track position.
Another caution for debris on Lap 163, albeit short, changed the flow of the race. Denny Hamlin, who had been run into by Kurt Busch on the previous restart, pitted for four tires and fuel out of second. In addition, a small group of drivers towards the end of the lead lap including Earnhardt, Jr. also stopped. Those drivers would be able to go the rest of the way on just one more stop.
After the restart, Kurt Busch settled into a small, yet comfortable lead over Jeff Gordon and managed to hold that lead through a round of green-flag pit stops. However, the leaders, with the exception of Keselowski and Tony Stewart were forced to pit at Lap 205 or earlier for fuel. Stewart and Keselowski stretched their final stops out to Laps 210 and 211, putting them on the edge of making it. Meanwhile, Earnhardt, Jr. and Hamlin pitted on Lap 215.
Busch reclaimed the lead once the cycle finished, but chose to stay out until his tank ran dry, unlike most of his adversaries, who chose to short-pit. When Busch finally stopped with ten laps to go, the car had issues getting back up to speed because Busch ran the tank dry. Teammate Keselowski then took the lead and managed to hang on the rest of the way while in fuel conservation-mode to hold off a hard-charging Earnhardt, Jr. in the closing laps to take the win.
Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Edwards rounded out the top-5. Sixth through tenth were Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Stewart, who was forced to pit towards the end after all, Kurt Busch, and Greg Biffle.
Earnhardt Jr., for the second straight week, lost due to fuel mileage, but was optimistic about his team’s future prospects after the race.
“We shouldn’t have run second again,” Earnhardt, Jr. said. “We’ve got to fix some things. We’ve got fast cars, so we can be fast.”
Stewart, who seemed to be in a good position to make it on fuel, could only reflect on what might have been after the race.
“We didn’t get all the fuel in it to make it to the end,” Stewart said after the race. “We had a problem getting the fuel in and we didn’t get it full at that second to last stop so we had to pit there with about ten to go. There’s nothing you can do. Our guys are doing a great job. They did a great job all day. We kind of had to roll the dice on the chassis set up. I’m really proud of our engineers and Darian (Grubb, crew chief). they did a great job of getting us there and making good educated guesses. So we had a really good car today.”
The elder Busch brother, who despite leading four times for 152 laps, had to settle for ninth-place, was gracious and complimentary of team-mate Brad Keselowski following the race.
“I’m proud of the way that this team has run,” Busch said. “To have a car to lead laps today and be very competitive, I was all smiles. I felt coming into the weekend that if we could pace ourselves, have good team communication, we would be competitive. it was great. There was always something in the back of my mind today that we weren’t going to win, but I’m glad that Brad Keselowski got this win for those Miller Lite guys, for Dodge.”
There were five cautions for 22 laps, 17 lead changes among 9 different leaders, and the race was run at an average speed of 137.184 mph. Next week, the Sprint Cup Series makes their first visit of the season to Pocono Raceway for the Pocono 500.