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.”

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Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.