Keselowski wins in Vegas as Dale Jr. runs dry on final lap

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On a somber day for the Ford Motor Company, Brad Keselowski gave the Blue Oval camp a reason to smile.

After winning yesterday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead on the final lap after he ran out of gas coming off of Turn 2.

Keselowski went on to claim his first career Sprint Cup victory on the 1.5-mile Vegas oval, which enabled him to pull within one point of Earnhardt for the Sprint Cup championship lead going into next weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The victory also came hours after William Clay Ford, the director emeritus of the Ford Motor Company and owner/chairman of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, passed away at the age of 88 from pneumonia.

As a native of Rochester Hills, Michigan – not far from the manufacturer’s world headquarters in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn – Keselowski is aware of the impact Mr. Ford had on his community.

“He’s a big deal where I’m from in Detroit,” he said to Fox Sports in Victory Lane. “We want to say our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

But while he paid tribute to Mr. Ford, Keselowski was also thrilled to have virtually ensured his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after failing to qualify for the postseason last year.

Shortly after the final restart with 42 laps to go, Keselowski found himself battling Carl Edwards (who, along with Earnhardt, had stayed out on that previous yellow) for second before managing to get past the fellow Ford driver for the position.

That enabled him to go after Earnhardt, who had been told by crew chief Steve Letarte that he was likely to come up narrowly short on fuel.

“Carl Edwards helped me out there – he gave me a little break so I could go run down the 88 and that’s what we needed for a Ford to win,” Keselowski said. “We needed to put pressure on Dale and not let him get into fuel save mode, because you could tell he was getting close.”

With four laps remaining, Keselowski briefly took the lead from Earnhardt on the inside of Turn 1 but lost it back one turn later as Earnhardt got a great run off the high line.

Earnhardt pulled out to a half-second lead by the time the white flag came out. But unfortunately for him and Letarte, the latter’s prediction proved correct.

“We weren’t gonna run first or second had we not stayed out on that strategy,” said Earnhardt, who coasted home for the runner-up finish. “We knew we were a lap short and tried to save as much as we could. We got it to half a lap [short] and it ran out off of [Turn] 2 there.

“We took the gamble and didn’t win the race but it still worked in our favor to run second. It gave us a chance to win. It sucks to lose like that but we can’t let that be a negative. We gotta go to Bristol and try to win there, and the only way to be productive is to be positive.”

Paul Menard put together a stout run for Richard Childress Racing, finishing third for his best finish since his third-place run back in October 2012 at Kansas Speedway.

But don’t expect Menard to celebrate Vegas-style as he has very important business to attend to back home in North Carolina: The birth of his first child.

“Daytona was really good for us and we struggled at Phoenix but these guys never gave up,” said Menard, who recorded his third consecutive Top-10 at Las Vegas.

“The car was really good on long runs. On Thursday, we had a test day and we were really good on race trim. We had no speed at all in qualifying trim, but we went back to race trim and it was fast again…It’s something we can definitely build on for mile-and-a-half [tracks].”

Pole sitter Joey Logano recorded his second straight fourth-place finish, while Edwards went on to round out the Top 5.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
Kobalt 400 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Unofficial Results

1) Brad Keselowski
2) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
3) Paul Menard
4) Joey Logano
5) Carl Edwards
6) Jimmie Johnson
7) Ryan Newman
8) Kasey Kahne
9) Jeff Gordon
10) Matt Kenseth
11) Kyle Busch
12) Denny Hamlin
13) Brian Vickers
14) Martin Truex Jr.
15) Jamie McMurray
16) Austin Dillon
17) Jeff Burton
18) A.J. Allmendinger
19) Kyle Larson
20) Trevor Bayne
21) Danica Patrick
22) Greg Biffle
23) Clint Bowyer
24) Marcos Ambrose
25) Aric Almirola
26) Kurt Busch
27) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
28) Casey Mears
29) Michael Annett
30) David Gilliland
31) Justin Allgaier
32) David Ragan
33) Tony Stewart
34) Reed Sorenson
35) Ryan Truex
36) Cole Whitt
37) Alex Bowman
38) Timmy Hill
39) Travis Kvapil
40) Parker Kligerman
41) Kevin Harvick
42) Josh Wise
43) Michael McDowell

Shank: Ahead of year two, Acura NSX GT3 ‘100 percent better’

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A new-look lineup will greet Michael Shank Racing’s now customer-based Acura NSX GT3 program for the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The car itself, however, appears a much more solidly well-rounded machine after its first full year of racing and development in 2017, which should help the team build on the performance and results achieved last year.

“It’s 100 percent better,” Shank told NBC Sports at last week’s PRI Show in Indianapolis. “Steve Eriksen (vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development) mentioned (in a meeting), it’s so much better than we were last year. I don’t know what that means ultimately, except to say we’re more prepared.”

Owing to IMSA’s designation that the team can’t run a works, factory-backed entry as that was only allowed for one year, the MSR GT Daytona class effort in 2018 takes on a customer role.

The team has a new full-season pairing in the No. 93 Acura, with IMSA veteran and multi-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach alongside Justin Marks, a bit of a renaissance man in his own right as a NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner and one of the principals of DryLake Group, which runs the GoPro Motorplex among other businesses.

At present, the team’s No. 86 Acura for Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente is a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup entry, but the team and Acura are working towards filling that car for a full season return with additional drivers to be named later.

Mario Farnbacher and AJ Allmendinger have been announced as two of the extra drivers for Daytona for MSR’s team, Farnbacher also being confirmed with the No. 93 car for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup schedule.

Shank explained how methodical he has to be from a budgetary planning standpoint and how this new look lineup came together.

“It never comes real easy. I don’t want to cry too much because when you look at this, I’ve got 25 full-time people, I’ve got a fairly large budget for a “smaller team” – we’re not poor, but we just have to watch our steps,” he said.

“The reason why we’re still here after 20 years is that we’ve been conservative financially, meaning we only do what we can do and then we got to draw a line. As much as I want another set of $100,000 dampers, I got to pull back!”

“We truly, truly got lucky with that one (the No. 93 car). Justin flies under the radar a little but, but I promise you he’s going to surprise some people this year. Once we get into January – he’s got some kind of cool commitments in early January, he’s climbing a mountain in South America, one of the tallest in the world. He’s going to contend for a lot of cool stuff this year, I’m anxious to see where he goes.”

Aschenbach, for his part, is relishing the opportunity. He and Shank have known each other more than a decade going back to when he tested an Atlantic car, and he and Marks have finally synced up after years of wanting to work together.

Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

“Michael’s assembled a very successful team. It’s a professional organization. It’s very well managed with a common goal of winning,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “Even for a seat fitting you feel at home. It made the decision very easy. I have a lot of respect for Shank, and for what he’s accomplished. He’s always in the paddock with a program. You have to give props to that, to have that staying power.

“When I started to realize I’d have to move from Stevenson, Justin was my first call, strictly because we’ve been friends for so long. He wanted to do more sports car racing. He did great in the Turner BMW last year, and I think it re-energized him to focus on sports car racing in the future.

“I tested at Sebring a few laps in the Acura. It’s definitely different than the Audi to suit that. But that’s a part of racing where nothing out of the norm. I was very impressed with the car. You can tell they’ve worked really hard in a lot of specific areas, and that lets you see how successful it is. Winning two IMSA races against the caliber of competition in the first year was an incredible effort and showed the dedication of Acura, HPD, Michael Shank Racing and the drivers assembled.”

One of the unfortunate side effects is that Ozz Negri, who’s been as much a Shank lifer as the team has been, doesn’t appear to be in the frame for another year. He’s been with Shank for nearly 15 years.

“It’s just circumstances,” Shank reflected. “We’re talking about 14 straight years of working together (with Ozz). I haven’t gotten real sad about it because I feel like times change sometimes. His contribution to our team is so much more than driving a race car. So, it’s just fortunate that’s it has to come to this. Hopefully, he’ll be a part of our team somehow, some way.”

Andy Lally (Magnus Racing) and Jeff Segal (Scuderia Corsa) have also moved on to new teams next year, although both have experience with those teams.