Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Having already won the Daytona 500 last month, driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte had nothing to lose when they gambled on fuel in Sunday's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt drove his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet onto pit road for his last stop of the race on lap 211 and then attempted to run the final 56 laps, or 84 miles, without pitting for fuel.
Brad Keselowski held the lead late in the race, but when the fourth and final caution came with 45 laps to go, Keselowski and many others on the lead lap pitted for fuel. Earnhardt took over the lead and held it until the last lap.
With Keselowski chasing him down for the lead and the win, Earnhardt ran out of gas coming out of turn 2. That allowed Keselowski to drive by and take the checkered flag for the third race of the season. Earnhardt managed to cross the line in second, while Paul Menard, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards were third through fifth, respectively.
The finish at Las Vegas is likely to be one of many races in the Sprint Cup Series this season that will end in dramatic fashion. In revising its format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, NASCAR has put a greater emphasis on winning races to make the playoffs.
Starting this year, the Chase field has been expanded from 12 drivers to 16. The top-15 drivers with the most wins after the 26-race regular season concludes will become eligible for the playoffs, provided they have finished in the top 30 in points. The 16th and final position will go to the driver who is highest in points without a victory.
Therefore, any driver who wins during the regular season is all but guaranteed a berth in the Chase.
If it weren't for the current Chase format, would Earnhardt and his team have rolled the dice like they did in Las Vegas?
"Absolutely not," Earnhardt said. "I can say that without a doubt."
Though Earnhardt was disappointed that he came up short of winning for the second time in the early season, he loved the fact he can take gambles without it jeopardizing his chances of making the Chase.
"I think everybody has seen that over the last couple of weeks that this format has definitely allowed teams to gamble like we have," Earnhardt said. "It did pay off. Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second.
"As much as you want to win, and believe me, we were out there trying to win, you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish, and we weren't going to run in the top five if we hadn't used that particular strategy. If we'd have run the same strategy as our competitors, we would have probably run just inside the top 10, where we were all day."
Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, who won last week's race at Phoenix, now have the liberty of gambling as much as they want until the 10-race Chase begins on Sept. 14 at Chicagoland.
"The chance that Dale and Stevie (Letarte) 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 format," Keselowski said. "I think that shows some of the opportunities that come up and how they can be stress-free days, and I'm looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities, because believe me, I'm not scared to take them, and I know (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) is not. So look out. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Keselowski won the Sprint Cup championship in 2012 but missed the Chase last year. He finished a disappointing 14th in the point standings and scored only one win, which came in the fall race at Charlotte.
With his victory in the Feb. 23 season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt snapped a 55-race winless streak in NASCAR's top series. He's having his best start to a season in his Cup career. Earnhardt has finished no worse than second in the first three races.
"Yeah, this is a good start for sure," he said. "The confidence is up there."
Keselowski has been almost as hot as Earnhardt, finishing third in the first two races and then winning at Las Vegas. He's only one point behind leader Earnhardt.
It was the first time Keselowski had won at Las Vegas, a track where he had struggled in the past.
"I don't have a great track record here at Las Vegas, but we sure did make it look a lot better (Sunday)," Keselowski said. "I'm sure there are other tracks where we can hopefully do the same this year."
The series heads to Bristol, Tenn., this coming weekend for the first short track race of the season. Bristol is usually entertaining with all of the beating and banging that goes on there. But it's likely to be more dramatic and exciting there this time, as drivers are now willing to gamble more in order to win and get a spot in the Chase.
"I think the new format isn't perfect, but it's definitely showing that it has tons of positives and it's better as far as entertainment for our sport," Earnhardt said. "It gives us freedom, and it's nice to have that freedom to do the things that we did (at Las Vegas), even though we knew our odds weren't good. We really shouldn't have made it, and we didn't, but we got to try because of the new system. I think it's pretty cool."