NASCAR Las Vegas 2014 recap: Motivated Keselowski wins big

Jerry Markland

Brad Keselowski was the big winner in Las Vegas, while NASCAR’s new rules package proved promising.

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Brad Keselowski heard the naysayers. The critics. The haters. All those who questioned how, coming off a 2012 championship season, he could inexplicably not qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup the following year.

What did Keselowski do when he heard those whispers that maybe his title was nothing more than happenstance?  That maybe somehow his championship was discredited because his defense was less than admirable.

Nothing. He simply tuned out the doubters giving them little consideration.

"For it to be one of those races against someone who's provided me such a tremendous opportunity ... it definitely is something that I cherish even more."-Keselowski on dueling Earnhardt for the win

"It's not fun, that's for sure," Keselowski said following his win Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "For me, I wouldn't say I let the negative comments motivate me too much. I was motivated the whole time. I didn't really need any extra motivation."

Whether he sees it or not, missing the Chase did something to Keselowski, according to those around him. Team owner Roger Penske said it matured his driver and gave him greater focus. And already known for his passion, Keselowski relentlessly hounded crew chief Paul Wolfe during the offseason asking myriad questions about how to improve performance.

"That's just Brad's style," Wolfe said. "That's why we love him. He's dedicated. He wants to be the best out there, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to do that."

Coming off a season defined by miscues, mechanical failures and lost opportunities, the goals for the No. 2 team were reprioritized. Most prominently, returning to Victory Lane; something which happened just once in 2013 and not until there were just five races left in the year.

Throughout the offseason Keselowski talked about the urgency to win. How an early season victory would not only likely ensure a return to the Chase thanks to NASCAR revising its format, but help alleviate the mounting pressure to reassert himself as a championship contender.

On Sunday he did just that. Savvy pit strategy by Wolfe jumped Keselowski up the leaderboard late and, when leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel on the final lap, the former champ looking to reclaim his lost glory pounced.

Not only was the win special because it all but punched his Chase ticket, it had added importance because of who Keselowski was competing against. Seven years ago it was Earnhardt who provided him his breakout moment by offering Keselowski a seat in one of his Nationwide Series cars.

Prior to Earnhardt's call Keselowski had bounced around from one small team to another in search of a chance to showcase his talent. Having lost yet another ride he figured his career was on the track to nowhere.

Now with the opportunity he always wanted Keselowski never looked back. Over the next two seasons he would win six Nationwide races and caught the eye of Penske, who courted him to join his Cup team.

"That's what you live for as a driver -- at least I do -- those moments where you're side-by-side and you lay it all out on the racetrack -- the tires smoking, engine smoking, and you're worn out inside because you gave it all you had," Keselowski said. "It was one of those races there at the end.

"For it to be one of those races against someone who's provided me such a tremendous opportunity those years back, it definitely is something that I cherish even more."

Yet as much as he's grateful for all that Earnhardt has done, it didn't change the fact Keselowski needed a win Sunday. And if push came to shove, well? It's best not to get in the way of a determined, motivated individual set on reestablishing himself in the NASCAR hierarchy.

"I'd have damn near wrecked him if I had to," Keselowski said. "It's part of the deal."

****

Following an offseason spent tweaking and testing, Las Vegas was going to be the litmus test for whether NASCAR's new rules package would have the desired effect and improve the product on intermediate-sized tracks.

And using 400 miles of racing as the barometer the results are decidedly mixed.

A common occurrence Sunday featured drivers lamenting the noticeable lack of grip around the 1.5-mile track, as the severe loose conditions became overwhelming for several. After starting on the pole and leading 44 of the first 46 laps, the handling of Joey Logano's car changed drastically when mired in traffic.

"Oh my god, [dirty air] killed everything I had," Logano radioed to his crew. The car's just so hard to drive in traffic. Terrible."

The frustration would continue throughout the middle portions of the event.

"I can't move up, I can't move down. It f***ing sucks!" said Logano, who did rally to finish fourth.

The aggravation of not being able to pass was felt by many. Clint Bowyer's spotter frequently reminded him to be patient as it just wasn't Bowyer who couldn't get beside another car.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was leading on the final lap before running out of fuel, said he had no better than an eighth-place car but once he got into front via pit strategy his Chevrolet was remarkably different.

"I just couldn't get any ground, and we fought the car all day," Earnhardt said. "Just the air is so dirty behind everybody, the further back you get you've got less and less grip. Once we got the lead, it was like driving a Cadillac."

However, the Kobalt 400 wasn't quite the parade several made it out to be.

Because of varying strategies and a track that afforded little to no grip, there were several instances of side-by-side racing with drivers charging to front while others slid backwards.

One such driver who was able to pass was Kyle Busch, who dropped to 41st after getting blocked in during an early pit stop. Restarting 41st, he wasted little time working his way through traffic and within 23 laps had rejoined the top 20.

Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson were also among those who didn't seem affected by the dirty air that came with being in traffic. Both were able to run down and pass Busch after the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had taken the lead.

If there was anything definitive to take away from NASCAR incorporating a larger spoiler, a statically set ride height, a rounded front splitter, and tweaks to the side-skirts, it's that Las Vegas was one of the more competitive editions in the track's recent history.

And that promise bodes well with a schedule featuring an abundance of similarly sized tracks.

"I thought it was all good," said ninth-place finisher Jeff Gordon of the new aero package. "There's a high groove and a middle groove and a bottom groove; and that's all we can ever ask for. I knew today was going to be one of the most challenging races that we were going to have, possibly all year long."

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