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Updated: Even out of gas, Earnhardt extends best season start with runner-up finish at Vegas

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With about 20 laps remaining, crew chief Steve Letarte warned race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he would be about a half-lap shy of enough fuel to finish Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

And even though his driver did everything he could in the closing laps to conserve fuel, Letarte couldn’t have been more precise.

Earnhardt was heading towards what would have been his second win in the first three races of the 2014 Sprint Cup season when his car began sputtering on the backstretch, coming out of turn two on the final lap.

Keselowski passed Earnhardt and went on to win the race. Junior, however, was able to restart his sputtering motor just enough to make it to the finish line in second place.

“I was lifting real early trying to save even more,” Earnhardt said about his fuel level in the post-race press conference. “We figured we were a lap short, and I was lifting early and let Brad get there.

“I felt like if we were good enough to hold him off, then we’d win the race.  If we weren’t, we would have saved enough fuel to have finished the race, at least get to the end. I can run out of gas on the back stretch and be okay, but if I run out off of 4 coming to the white it would’ve been big trouble, so I had to save a little bit. So I let him catch us and once he got there, I ran as hard as I could and could pull back away from him.”

When asked if he second-guessed the decision to stay out and not pit for a splash of fuel, Earnhardt said it was the right strategy to keep racing.

“You know, it did pay off.  Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second,” he said. “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 5 if we hadn’t have 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.

“At least it felt like I was around eighth all day.  I just couldn’t get any ground, and we fought the car all day. 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.”

Even though Earnhardt didn’t win, he nonetheless continued his torrid hot streak – the best start of his 15-year Sprint Cup career, with a win in the season opening Daytona 500 and back–to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas.

And while he also has never won at LVMS, Sunday marked the third time Earnhardt has finished second in 15 career starts there.

“Yeah, this is a good start for sure,” Earnhardt said. “Yeah, the confidence is up there. When we first got together we’d run our guts out to run in the top 15.  Then the next year we’d run our guts out to run in the top 10, and you wondered when you’d get up to fifth and start running in the top 5 regularly.

“We started doing that finally last year, and so our team just keeps stepping up this ladder. It just makes total sense to me how that process has went, having lived it and having seen the progression. So the sky’s the limit for us, and if we are smart and keep our composure and don’t get foolish and don’t get too proud of ourselves, just keep it in perspective, we’ve got a great opportunity this year to be this competitive every week. … You definitely don’t want to take it for granted, get used to it, but this is what we envisioned, and starting to bear some fruit.”

With his win, Keselowski closed the points gap on Earnhardt in the Sprint Cup standings. Junior came into Las Vegas leading by six points; he now leads Keselowski by only one point after the first three races.

“It’s disappointing (to finish second), but at the same time the good Lord has blessed me with a good team and good fortune and great opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “So I don’t want to get too down and think (only) about the positives and be productive so we can go to Bristol (next Sunday) and try to win there.”

Keselowski and Earnhardt are both past winners at the half-mile track at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“It sucks to lose like that, but we can’t let it be a negative,” Earnhardt said. “We have to go to Bristol and try to win there. Only way to be productive is to be positive, so we’ve got to look at the positives today and keep working toward our goal of winning some more races.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.