LAS VEGAS (AP) — When Brad Keselowski blew past Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the backstretch of the final lap to win Sunday, many concerns about NASCAR's new Chase for the Sprint Cup championship rules also got left in the dust.
Earnhardt felt confident he could gamble on a near-empty tank at Las Vegas Motor Speedway because his spot in the Chase already is virtually secure, thanks to his Daytona 500 win. The new Chase format rewards victory, pushing drivers to go for every checkered flag — and that usually means better racing.
"I think the new format is definitely showing it has tons of positives," Earnhardt said. "It's better as far as entertainment for our sport. It gives us freedom, and it's nice to have that freedom to do the things that we did today, even though we knew our odds weren't good. We really shouldn't have made it, and we didn't, but we got to try because of the new system."
Keselowski pushed his former mentor and eventually passed him, eager to secure his own Chase spot just three races into the season. He praised Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte for their boldness — and with his own Chase spot now virtually secure after missing entirely last season, the 2012 Sprint Cup champ and crew chief Paul Wolfe plan to emulate them.
"It was a good, risky move on their part, because they had nothing to lose because of this format," Keselowski said. "I think that shows some of the opportunities that come up and how they can be stress-free days, and I'm looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities. Because believe me, I'm not scared to take them, and I know Paul's not, so look out. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Five more developments from NASCAR's third race of an intriguing season:
PENSKE'S PUSH: Both Penske Fords in the NASCAR field are off to outstanding starts.
Keselowski is second in the overall standings after three straight top-three finishes capped by a weekend sweep in Vegas, including his Nationwide Series victory. Shaking off last season's struggles and honing in on NASCAR's new aerodynamics package, Keselowski is just one point behind Earnhardt.
Joey Logano is also looking good with a fourth-place finish in Vegas after starting on the pole. Logano sits fourth in the overall standings, 17 points behind Keselowski.
HENDRICK HANGS IN: While Penske's cars rolled, Hendrick Motorsports' four Chevys finished in the top nine in Vegas.
Jimmie Johnson led 34 laps and contended for his fifth career victory at Las Vegas before eventually finishing sixth. The six-time Cup champ is third in the overall standings.
Jeff Gordon attempted to make a quick finish on fuel economy before fading to ninth, while Kasey Kahne finished eighth after being the runner-up in Vegas last year.
Gordon is fifth in the overall standings, giving Hendrick three drivers in the top five. Kahne is 15th.
NO REPEATS: Matt Kenseth never came close to defending last year's Las Vegas win. He didn't lead a lap and finished 10th on what he called "a very tough day."
It wasn't much better for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, either. Kyle Busch wound up 11th despite leading three times for 52 laps on his hometown track, and Denny Hamlin was 12th.
Busch was disappointed because a bad pit stop slowed his impressive early progress, and adjustments to his setup sent his car in the wrong direction.
"The car was too loose on the first run, and we tightened it up and it was really fast for a while," Busch said. "But we kept adjusting on it to try and help, and it was just getting looser and looser, especially on the last run. Just disappointing when we looked like we had a good car earlier in the race."
ROUGH START: The early season struggles at Stewart-Haas Racing even affected Kevin Harvick this time.
Harvick went into the race as the lone bright spot for the organization following last week's win at Phoenix. He had a strong car at Las Vegas, and he led twice for 23 laps, but a parts failure on the 195th lap sent him to the garage and a 41st-place finish.
"It's hard to complain," he said. "These guys have given me cars that are good every week. Just a little parts failure there. We will figure out the cause of it and try to just keep that from happening."
BUMPY RIDE: Harvick's teammates weren't even close to being competitive, which could lead to an unpleasant SHR team meeting Monday.
Team co-owner Tony Stewart was off from the start, and no adjustment seemed to help as he finished 33rd. Newcomer Kurt Busch was 26th, leaving Danica Patrick to lead the team in 21st.
"I'm really happy with the cars this year," Patrick said. "I was running with the leaders the last half of the race, but I was a lap down. Unfortunately, one car always stayed out, so we couldn't get our lap back (via the wave-around), and we just missed the lucky dog spot."