Kahne pulled away to victory in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night, winning NASCAR’s longest race for the third time and gaining his stripes for Hendrick Motorsports the only way that matters — taking the checkered flag.
Kahne wondered earlier this year when that might happen.
The self-imposed pressure grew this week before Charlotte Motor Speedway at a party Hendrick threw to celebrate the owner’s 200th career win Jimmie Johnson earned at Darlington Raceway two weeks back. Kahne was introduced as part of the current team — after the 15 drivers who won races for Hendrick took a bow. Kahne said the gathering showed him what Hendrick has meant to the sport — and how much he wanted to add to that legacy.
”It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” Kahne said.
And it was a popular triumph. Teammate Jeff Gordon rushed up to hug Kahne and told him, ”Proud of you.”
Hendrick saw that Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis were frustrated by their early struggles when their best finish was a 14th in California.
”You could see it was bothering him,” Hendrick said. ”I tried to reassure him that we’re in this for the long haul.”
Things began to click soon after, and Kahne entered the week with five consecutive top-10 finishes.
What a roll for Hendrick Motorsports. The program was stuck on 199 victories since October. Then came Johnson’s milestone win at Darlington. The five-time champion followed that with a victory in the all-star race at Charlotte last week.
Kahne led four Hendrick cars in the top 11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sixth and Gordon was right behind in seventh — only his third top-10 finish of the year. Johnson came in 11th. He was vying for more but fell from contention with a mistake on the final pit stop as he left the stall with his gas can still engaged, dragging his crew member behind.
Johnson was docked with a stop-and-go penalty that ended his chances at winning a third week in a row.
”I think we’re showing the consistency from all of our teams,” Hendrick said. ”I can’t wait for the second half of the season.”
Kahne crossed the finish line nearly five seconds ahead of Denny Hamlin. Kyle Busch was third and series points leader Greg Biffle fourth.
It was Kahne’s 13th career win and first since last November in Phoenix.
Kahne’s a racing gym rat who can’t stay away from competition. He drives in NASCAR Truck races when the Sprint Cup series is off — as he did at Darlington in 2011 and Rockinigham this spring — and raced this weekend in the World of Outlaws dirt track contest across the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Kahne led 96 laps, including the final 42. He doesn’t see why the winning can’t continue.
”I just know that the cars and the people we have that Mr. Hendrick gives us is everything that we need to win,” Kahne said.
Danica Patrick, the first woman to drive in the race since Janet Guthrie in 1976, was five laps down in 30th — her best finish in three career Sprint Cup races.
Car owner Chip Ganassi flew to Charlotte after celebrating Dario Franchitti’s win at the Indianapolis 500 earlier Sunday. Ganassi, part of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, had hoped to double up with drivers Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya. But 250 laps in, McMurray was a lap down and Montoya two behind after needing an extra pit stop to tighten a loose wheel.
”The minute I walked into the garage, people were high-fiving me,” Ganassi said. ”Right now, we’ve got to get our cars up the grid.”
It didn’t happen as Montoya finished two laps down in 20th and McMurray right behind in 21st.
For much of this race, it looked as if Biffle wouldn’t be caught. He led 204 laps to dominate early and was clearly best as the race began in the hot, bright sunshine. Once the night cooled off the track, Biffle was no match for Kahne.
”Kasey’s car was just better at night,” Biffle said.
An early crash took Patrick out of contention in the season-opening Daytona 500 and she finished 38th. Patrick returned to Sprint Cup two weeks ago at treacherous Darlington and lasted throughout at the track considered ”Too Tough to Tame” and crossed the line in 31st.
Patrick’s goals this week were simply to be running at the end — and that she was. Starting 40th after a poor qualifying effort, Patrick quickly fell top laps down. But she held on throughout the long, long night.
Patrick also kept her humor. When she was cautioned by her team to keep hydrating, Patrick cracked, ”Copy that. Every time you don’t get an answer to a question, that’s what I’m doing.”
Patrick’s next Sprint Cup race will be at Bristol on Aug. 25. She promised to be more aggressive upon her return.
”Now that I’m getting more comfortable in certain situations, it’s time to start testing those waters and freeing the car up a little bit and seeing what we can get out of it,” Patrick said.
Earnhardt had hoped to avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss when he ran out of fuel 700 feet from the finish line while leading. Earnhardt came as close to second and was drag-racing Hamlin for the lead on the final restart before as the large crowd at Charlotte Motor Speedway howled. Earnhardt, too, couldn’t keep up with his teammate and his winless drought grew to 141 races.
NASCAR’s king, career victory leader Richard Petty, had both his entries starting 1-2. But polesitter Aric Almirola quickly fell back and finished 16th. Marcos Ambrose, who started second, broke a wheel hub and ended up 32nd.
The race was the quickest ever for the 600 at 3 hours, 51 minutes, 14 seconds, nearly five minurtes faster than the mark set in 1995.