LAS VEGAS — Brad Keselowski nailed the final restart and roared away from the field in the scorching desert heat.
With another huge performance in his late-season surge, Keselowski finished up front again — and now he has NASCAR's Big Three drivers looking over their shoulders.
Keselowski raced to his third consecutive Cup Series victory Sunday, opening the 10-race playoffs by persevering through a wreck-filled afternoon and taking charge of overtime.
He also secured team owner Roger Penske's 500th victory across all competitions via a resourceful performance with the temperature 99 degrees and the pressure high from steady stop-and-start drama late in a race that had 12 cautions and several wrecks.
"I didn't think it was ever going to end," Keselowski said after the 27th win of his Cup Series career and his third at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "I was worried about running out of gas there at the end."
Keselowski had plenty of worries with just two laps to go while he sat in his stationary car and waited for the cleanup of Michael McDowell's wreck with Kurt Busch. After the red-flag stop ended, though, nobody could keep up with the Team Penske No. 2 Ford.
The victory extended an extraordinary run for Keselowski, who won at Darlington Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway the previous two races. Keselowski credited his pit crew's efficiency for the latest victory in his improbable surge, which has added some intrigue to a season largely dominated by the Big Three of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.
"We have not been the best car the last three weeks," Keselowski said. "We put everything together when it counted, and we kind of stole it today. Same scenario the last two weeks. I feel like we stole the last three races. We're not complaining, but we still have a lot of work to do to go out there and win heads-up without those issues."
Penske was not in attendance for his landmark victory, instead watching from California's Sonoma Raceway at the IndyCar season finale. He formed Team Penske in 1966, and it has fielded 50 winning drivers across 14 race series.
The owner pumped his fist on the timing stand in Sonoma after Keselowski won.
"We did it, boss!" Keselowski shouted. "That's quite a number, right? It's really great to be a part of that, and to get the last one to get us there, that's pretty great."
Kyle Larson was second and Truex third.
"Brad clearly found the horseshoe," Truex said. "Three races in a row he's won, he has not had the best car. He hasn't led the most laps in any of those races, and he showed up at the end with good pit stops and good short-run speed. I think clearly it's pretty obvious how it worked out.
"He's hot right now. He's on a streak. That's the way it goes. We finished third with the best car."
Eight of the 16 playoff drivers had problems during the race, which had six cautions in the final 60 laps alone. Four playoff drivers failed to finish — including Harvick, who wrecked with 120 laps to go when his right front tire blew out.
Kyle Busch finished seventh at his home track even after clipping the wall and plowing through the infield grass with 35 laps to go. Truex moved into the overall points lead over Kyle Busch and Keselowski, who leapfrogged Harvick.
Harvick's blown tire also wrecked 22-year-old pole-sitter Erik Jones, who couldn't react quickly enough and rear-ended Harvick. The 42-year-old former champ doesn't need a fantastic result from the first set of playoff races to advance, but he was still furious about his tire failure.
"There was something wrong from the time we put the tires on," Harvick said. "It was like Russian roulette every time you put these (terrible) tires on and try to drive around the race track. One time it is tight, one time it is loose, one time they are blistered. We had a great car, and then you put a set of tires on it and you can't hardly make it through the field."
Jamie McMurray spun and wrecked playoff driver Chase Elliott on the 211th lap. Elliott said he plans to drive next week at Richmond Raceway despite injuring his shoulder.
Joey Logano kept alive his hopes of a move into title contention after starting second, leading 46 laps and finishing fourth. He's fifth in the points standings, right behind Harvick but barely ahead of Kurt Busch.
Four drivers will be eliminated from the playoffs two weeks from now. Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson is in the drop zone after taking damage in a late wreck and finishing 22nd. Denny Hamlin is last among the playoff drivers after spinning across the infield with 21 laps to go — and he got no style points for basically stopping his wrecked car in his pit box.