SPARTA — Even after three straight days of racing in 100-plus degree temperatures, the concern coming from Brad Keselowski's crew Saturday night wasn't over how much their driver had left in him, but what kind of fumes remained inside the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge he was piloting.
Turns out, not only did Keselowski have plenty of fortitude in his lanky frame, his still-sharp skills were able to nurse his near-empty tank home for a Sprint Cup Series-leading third victory of the year.
An already solid season for Keselowski took a drastic swing upward Saturday night when he milked his fuel mileage to the fullest over the final 56 laps to capture the second running of the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
Keselowski was the only driver to compete in all three NASCAR races this weekend, finishing second in Thursday's Camping World Truck Series outing and seventh in the Nationwide Series test Friday evening.
Despite the sweltering conditions the last few days, Keselowski showed the extra track time over the 1.5-mile tri-oval and its now famed bumps was worth the beads of sweat.
Although he had to go to a backup car after colliding with Juan Montoya on the first lap of practice Friday, Keselowski's blue Deuce was a constant top-5 presence throughout the 267-lap race and was one of the few to challenge Kyle Busch's early domination.
"I wanted all three," exclaimed Keselowski, who is currently 10th in points but has two prior wins this year at Bristol and Talladega. "Who would have figured my best finish would have come in the hardest race? That shows the importance of teamwork.
"(The crew) put together a backup car from last year in 100-degree heat in an hour's time, less than that, got it on the track so we could run our practice ... that's what bad-asses do. I'm damn proud of them."
Daunting as it was to make green-flag passes in a race where clean air is key, Keselowski ultimately grabbed the lead for good during the final caution of the night. After coming in for his final green-flag stop, Keselowski stayed out while others came in to top off for fuel during a caution on Lap 216 and maintained that advantage when the race restarted on Lap 220.
If he was trying to conserve extra fuel, Keselowski — who won the Nationwide race at Kentucky in 2011 — didn't look like a man letting up in the least. The 28-year-old held a clear advantage for much of the final run and hit the line 4.399 seconds ahead of Kasey Kahne in the runner-up spot.
"I feel we've been as good or better than most teams when it comes to fuel mileage," said Paul Wolfe, crew chief for the No. 2 Penske Dodge. "My biggest concern was someone else running out of gas and the race getting extended.
"This was probably the toughest weekend we've had as a team up to this point. But it seems like we're able to find another level to work at when it comes to adversity."
Denny Hamlin, who led 58 laps on the night, came in third with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon rounding out the top five.
"I just hoped he'd run out of gas," said Kahne. "There was no way I was catching (Keselowski). We need to win a race or two more to make the Chase."
The first 130 laps of Saturday's race looked as if Kyle Busch was trying to make things right for the fans who got stranded in last year's traffic snarl by giving them a replay of what transpired 12 months prior.
Just as he did in taking the inaugural edition of the 400-mile race, Busch overwhelmed his competition early, leading 116 laps.
The one-man showcase ended on Lap 130 following a restart when Hamlin came between Busch and Jimmie Johnson three wide and outraced the duo for his first advantage of the night.
Without the crucial benefit of that clean air up front, Busch was never able to get his No. 18 Toyota back to the front and ended up 10th.
"Once you get back in traffic here, you can have the best car but you just can not make up any ground," said Hamlin, who needed a good run after posting back-to-back DNFs. "You're not just going to charge to the front here like at other tracks."
All that energy Keselowski called upon to get him through this weekend is now something he is looking to channel toward a top starting position when the 10-race Chase for the Championship gets under way in Chicago on Sept. 16.
"I want to be the guy with the most wins and inside the top 10 (when the Chase begins)," he said. "Hopefully we can climb a few more spots to be safe but wins and being in the top 10, that's all that matters."
Hamlin re-ups with Gibbs
Denny Hamlin will not test NASCAR's free-agent market, agreeing Saturday to a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin announced the extension on Twitter before Saturday night's race at Kentucky Speedway. Terms of his extension were not released, but he locked up a new deal almost 15 months before his current contract with JGR was set to expire.
Hamlin told The Associated Press earlier this week he saw no reason to look around at other race teams, in part because of his stability at JGR and with sponsor FedEx. The economy has changed dramatically since Hamlin's 2005 tryout with JGR, but FedEx hasn't reduced its commitment to the team or the driver.
FedEx sponsors 36 of the 38 Sprint Cup Series races.
"I consider myself very lucky to be with a team and a sponsor that want me," he told The AP this week. "You look around the garage and guys can't get rides because of sponsorship problems, or they've taken pay cuts, or they aren't as competitive as they could be because the budget isn't there. I've got a great situation, and I don't see how changing teams could get any better."
FedEx as a policy does not announce signings, but it's said that the company typically keeps its contracts with JGR aligned with Hamlin.
From a competition standpoint, Hamlin also said there isn't a better team out there for him. JGR consistently fields title contenders and, with all four seats locked up at Hendrick Motorsports, Hamlin doesn't see the upside of moving to another team.
"I want to win races and championships. I don't want to collect a bigger check and not be able to win trophies at the same time," he said. "I don't see anything out there that wouldn't be a step down, or a lateral move. I'm happy at JGR, and didn't see any reason not to get a deal done."
Hamlin has won 19 races in the No. 11 with JGR, and has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in all six of his full seasons.
Change is tough
Matt Kenseth's series-shaking revelation earlier this week that he is leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season might have a profound impact on how he finishes out the year.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer have been down that road.
Earnhardt left the team his father founded in May 2007 to sign with Hendrick Motorsports.
"As tough as it is and as many unknowns as there are about a move like that, more often than not things work themselves out," Earnhardt said. "Everybody kind of ends up in a better place."
That doesn't mean it will be easy.
"It will be a little tough with the transition just emotionally because he's been in the same place for so long," Earnhardt added. "But eventually it will lead to better days and he'll find out that things are going to work out just fine."
After spending his entire NASCAR career with Richard Childress Racing, Clint Bowyer jumped to Michael Waltrip's team a year ago.
"For me, it was very hard to keep that momentum going," Bowyer said. "Everybody was kind of wanting to give up on the season and get it over with."
For his part, Kenseth said every member of the team needed to pull together to concentrate on winning now, not at some point in the future.
"It has really just been business as usual at the racetrack," he said. "It hasn't really changed anything with what we do or go about it or think about it. Every time you go to the track you want to do the best you can and race as hard as you can and try to win races. There is no incentive for any of us to not do that."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.