The third race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup evolved into a dramatic duel on fuel.
And the winner was Brad Keselowski.
After watching non-Chaser Kyle Busch dominate the race and point leader Jimmie Johnson take the lead late, Keselowski and his team worked fuel strategy to perfection and won the AAA 400.
The victory shot Keselowski into the point lead, five in front of Johnson. He saved fuel down the stretch to make it to the finish.
“It’s not easy, but the Dodge team and Penske Engines have done a phenomenal job with these engines,” Keselowski said. “This has been one of our weakest tracks. We didn’t lead much, but we hung around in the top five.
“We kept creeping around and keep creeping around. When you do that, its puts you in position for things to happen.”
Johnson slowed on purpose over the race’s closing laps to preserve fuel. He finished fourth, behind Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.
“It’s tough, it really is,” Johnson said. “We have a handful of races that come down to this all year. We’re improving. It just didn’t evolve like a normal race here.”
Busch, who finished seventh, turned in a dominating day. He led 156 of the first 200 laps but couldn’t win the fuel challenge.
The face of the race changed in the first half when a caution caused by a tire exploding on J.J.Yeley’s car resulted in a caution on lap 70 in the middle of a green-flag pit cycle. The caution left only eight cars on the lead lap. Busch came out of that mess with first place.
Matt Kenseth’s Chase chances practically dissolved when his Ford was forced to the pits with 90 laps to go after a track-bar problem. The Roush Fenway Ford crew apparently fixed the problem, but Kenseth spun a few laps later, prompting some angry words from the driver to his team via radio.
Ten cars were on the lead lap when the green flag flew with 79 laps to go and Johnson leading Kyle Busch and Keselowski.
Johnson surrendered the lead to Busch with 45 laps to go, as the Hendrick Motorsports team elected to go into fuel-conservation mode, gambling on possibly making it to the finish without pitting.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.