Crew chief Brad Parrott on Lady Luck's role in last-lap drama
Editor's note: Brad Parrott, a 19-time winner in NASCAR national series competition, has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis after Sunday's Kobalt 400 for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:
RELATED: Kobalt 400 race results
Appropriately for Las Vegas, all the chips were put on the table for team owner Roger Penske this weekend. Two wins on the track and a hole-in-one on the golf course -- it doesn't get much better than that, especially with Vegas odds on your side.
Brad Keselowski had the car to beat all day long Sunday in Las Vegas, starting on the Coors Light Pole with his teammate Joey Logano right beside him. Team Penske, in general, to start out the NASCAR Sprint Cup season like it has, that team is going to give Hendrick Motorsports a run for its money as we head into this spring stretch of the season. Keselowski's win is a pat on the back after a hard day for Ford Motor Company, which lost William Clay Ford Sr. earlier Sunday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was oh-so-close. What a great run for him to start out the season with a first and two second-places. Their team momentum is incredible right now. You'll have to go way back in the record books to find a team that's started off the year so strong -- if it's happened recently, I don't recall it.
I think you have to look back at how the top two crew chiefs performed and the mental aspect of making that final green-flag run. The pressure is on their shoulders to make a gutsy call like Steve Letarte made for Dale Jr. If the race had run just one more lap under caution before the final restart, they could have had the race in hand.
The decision by Paul Wolfe on pit scenarios made the difference for Keselowski. With all those differing strategies, there's no doubt these crew chiefs are studying these strategies hard. You often see football coaches on the sidelines with their hard-covered playbooks -- there's no doubt these crew chiefs do the same thing with the help of team engineers. I'm sure all the top crew chiefs have the manpower underneath them to help make these decisions because I doubt very seriously that these high-pressure calls are being made off the hip.
For Steve Letarte to tell Dale Jr. as he took the white flag "if you run out, stay on the race track," I can't fathom a crew chief knowing exactly how much he has in the car to that degree. Dale Jr. played the fuel mileage game every lap since the race went green, shutting the car off and saving gas under every yellow flag. It almost paid off.
But there were notable results behind the first two. Paul Menard finished third to get Richard Childress Racing its first top-five this year. With his teammate Ryan Newman finishing seventh, it showed that their speedway program will be strong in two weeks in California. Carl Edwards came back through the field to finish fifth, giving Roush Fenway Racing its first top-five of the season.
Now that we've raced on a 1.5-mile track with a short track and 2-mile track coming up, the Penskes, Hendricks and one part of Stewart-Haas Racing have things figured out early on. Other teams have homework to do before next weekend's race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Kyle Busch was the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver that was a contender in Las Vegas and he did it primarily through track position. Once it came time to race, he really struggled and fell in line with where his teammates finished -- 11th, just behind JGR's Matt Kenseth in 10th and Denny Hamlin in 12th. Those were Toyota's best finishers. They're all going to have to come back from their West Coast swing and get it together before Bristol.
Kevin Harvick, unfortunately, had a part failure that cost him a sure top-five finish today and a chance at two wins in a row. The rest of the Stewart-Haas camp and the Richard Petty Motorsports team are scratching their heads tonight as they make the long trip back to the East Coast. What we call the red-eye trip back from Vegas will make for extra-red eyes for those crews Sunday night.
Fortunately -- or unfortunately -- for some crews, they'll have to go by the casinos one more time before they head home. Luck sure played a part on the race track Sunday. The "all-in" and "double-down" strategies all went out the window with three-quarters of a lap to go.