DOVER, Del. (AP) — Brad Keselowski had fuel to spare for a couple of victory burnouts.
Those few splashes of gas left down the stretch were just enough for a checkered flag – and a sign Keselowski is a championship favorite.
With other contenders battling fuel woes and limping toward pit road, Keselowski had enough gas in the No. 2 Dodge to win Sunday at Dover International Speedway for his second victory in three weeks.
Keselowksi’s stout start to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship allowed him to swipe the points lead from Jimmie Johnson.
Keselowski holds a five-point lead over Johnson as the Chase shifts to Talladega Superspeedway. Keselowski, who won the Chase opener at Chicagoland, has deftly avoided the famed Big Ones that strike the Alabama track to win twice there in seven career starts.
He held off a late push from runner-up Jeff Gordon to match Denny Hamlin for the season victory lead with five.
“I can’t state loudly enough how much longer this battle is,” Keselowski said.
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin have staked their claim through the first three of 10 Chase races as the drivers to beat.
Johnson and Hamlin each led a chunk of laps on the mile concrete oval, but failed to stretch their fuel to the end. Johnson, who has seven career wins at Dover, was ordered to back off the gas and salvaged a fourth-place finish. Hamlin pitted with 10 laps left, opening the door for Keselowski, and denying him his first win at the Monster Mile. Hamlin faded to eighth after starting from the pole.
“They’re not going to beat us on the track, that’s just plain and simple,” Hamlin said. “We’re just too fast right now and I feel like everything is going well. These strategy games, and the way these cautions are falling, it’s ill-timed.”
There was a caution at the end of a cycle of green-flag pit stops only 69 laps into the race that quickly dropped drivers a lap back. Amazingly, most of the field couldn’t ever get that lap back, and only six drivers finished on the lead lap.
Non-Chase drivers Mark Martin finished third and Carl Edwards was fifth. Kyle Busch led a race-high 302 laps until his own battles with the pump cost him what would have been a nice victory in a season where he failed to make the Chase. He finished seventh.
There were some rough finishes for the rest of the Chase field. Martin Truex Jr. was sixth, Clint Bowyer was ninth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 11th, Kevin Harvick 13th, Kasey Kahne 15th, Greg Biffle 16th, Tony Stewart 20th, and Matt Kenseth was knocked out of the race and was 35th.
There are seven races left in the Chase.
“By no means, do I feel like we’re the favorite,” Keselowski said. “Certainly, we’re not the underdog.”
Nope, not with a complete team effort turning the No. 2 Dodge into a regular contender to win.
Keselowski joked he had about another “100 miles” of racing left in his tank.
While crew chief Paul Wolfe didn’t want to reveal too much of his fuel-saving strategy, he conceded the car was “within a lap or two” or running on fumes. Keselowski raced the last 89 laps without a stop.
“There’s always some risk in calls like that,” Wolfe said. “We know where we stand. We know what we need to do. We know the guys are racing right now for the championship. I felt like we were as good as anybody on mileage.”
Johnson had his record eighth win at Dover in sight until he was forced to start saving fuel with about 15 laps left. Crew chief Chad Knaus told Johnson to yield the lead so the No. 48 could at least salvage a top-five.
“I wish we could have raced for it,” said Johnson, a five-time Cup champion. “We finally got control of the race late. But it just didn’t unfold like a normal race here.”
Hamlin had talked this week about embracing Dover after calling the mile concrete oval his least favorite one on the circuit. He won the pole and seemed in position to pull off a breakthrough win until fuel issues forced him down pit road behind Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate.
That left it to Gordon and Keselowski with 10 laps left to duel for the lead over the closing laps.
Gordon hoped Keselowski’s No. 2 Dodge would run out of gas.
Instead, Keselowski ran off with the victory.
Gordon followed his third place last week at New Hampshire with another strong run at Dover. He needed it after a 35th-place finish in the opener at Chicagoland buried him in the standings. Gordon is 10th in points.
“We’re not going to continue in this championship against those guys up front if they keep running the way they’re running,” he said. “The only way we’re going to get a chance at them is if they have a problem like we had (in the opener). If we keep running like this, we’ll get the wins.”
Keselowski had four career wins coming into the season. He had his career breakthrough at Talladega in 2009 when he raced to his first career victory. He won there again this season in May and knows a season sweep will give him a nice cushion in the standings.
“He didn’t make a mistake. We didn’t lose any time on the track,” team owner Roger Penske said. “He’s doing a terrific job and I love the position we’re in.”