By JEFF WOLFE
Kasey Kahne came into the 2012 Sprint Cup season with high expectations.
Until recently, he didn’t have many high finishes to match them.
But Kahne was feeling quite high after winning Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Kahne pulled away from second-place finisher Denny Hamlin in the final 30 laps for his first win of the year.
“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” Kahne said of the first victory for Hendrick Motorsports.
It was Kahne’s sixth straight finish of eighth or better and his 13th career victory. It has been quite a rebound for the driver who was hand-picked to take over for Mark Martin in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car this season. Kahne began the season well back in the points standings, even flirting with the 30th spot after the first six races, when he had three finishes of 34th or worse. But Hendrick wanted Kahne enough to work out a one-year deal for Kahne to drive for the now defunct Red Bull Racing team in 2011 as Martin had one year left on his contract.
“’You could see it was bothering him,” Hendrick said of Kahne’s early season struggles. ”I tried to reassure him that we’re in this for the long haul.”
And now Kahne seems to be rewarding Hendrick’s faith. It was Kahne’s third Coca-Cola 600 victory and his fourth overall at Charlotte. It was also Hendrick’s 201st career Sprint Cup win and the third straight Sprint Cup win for Hendrick, starting with Jimmie Johnson’s wins at Darlington and then the Sprint Cup All-Star race last week. It was also Hendrick’s 17th overall win at Charlotte, and tenth in the 400-lap, 600-mile event on the 1.5-mile oval in front of 140,000 fans.
Kahne took control of the race for good after pit stops when the yellow flag came out for debris on lap 319. Kahne and Greg Biffle, who led a race-high 204 laps, had been trading the lead and were among the eight leaders to come in and make either two or four-tire pit stops. But Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. stayed out, but didn’t stay in the lead for long.
It took Kahne less than eight laps to regain the top spot after the restart on lap 326, and except for green flag pit stops on lap 353 causing the positions to recycle, Kahne was the leader and clearly had the car that no one else could beat. He led the final 44 laps and 96 overall.
“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.
Jimmie Johnson lost any chance he had to win when he left his pit box on the final stop with the gas can still in his No. 48 car. It cost him a stop-and-go penalty under the green flag and put him a lap down, leading to an 11th-place finish.
The rest of the top-10 was Kyle Busch in third, then Biffle, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, who finished one lap down. Danica Patrick, racing in her first Coca-Cola 600, finished 30th, five laps down.
The finishes of Earnhardt Jr., whose winless streak is now at 141 races, and Gordon, gave Hendrick three of the top seven finishers.
”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.”
There were just five yellow flags for 23 laps, making this the fastest of the 51 600-mile races at Charlotte with an average speed of 155.696 mph in just over three hours, 51 minutes, five minutes faster than the previous fastest race in 1995. It also continued a season where there have been fewer accidents and more long green-flag runs.
“I think everyone is so used to these cars now,” Hamlin said. “I think at the beginning, these cars were a tremendous handful to drive. Obviously we saw some wrecks because of it, especially on restarts. Bottom line, I think everyone is so concerned with points nowadays, you know if you wreck and you finish in the 30s, you’re going to take ten races to get that back. I think everyone’s just a little bit more patient on restarts, as crazy as that sounds. Its just not as wild on restarts as it used to be a couple years ago. Everyone is minding their Ps and Qs, trying to get the best finish out of their day, knowing the one thing you can’t overcome in a race is a crash.”
And that’s something drivers will be especially careful of heading into next Sunday’s 1 p.m. race at Dover, a one-mile concrete oval that has proved treacherous at times.