Kasey Kahne stormed to the front in the second half of the race and cruised to victory Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The win was the first of the season for Kahne and his first since joining Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne has had strong cars much of the year but has fallen victim to a number of maladies. He entered Sunday’s race 16th in Sprint Cup points and gained a spot with the win.
Kahne beat Denny Hamlin to the finish by 4.29 seconds. Following in the top five were Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski.
Even as the night grew long and other contenders became pretenders, Kahne surged. He clearly had the best car as track conditions changed with cooler evening temperatures.
“We’ve had speed, but we haven’t been nearly as fast as Jimmie Johnson or a couple guys winning the races,” Kahne said. “I knew I needed to step up. Our team is solid. Tonight we were able to put it all together. We had a car that was perfect throughout the last 150 laps.”
Hamlin assumed the lead with 74 laps to go when he stayed on the track during a caution-flag pit-stop round.
Following Hamlin to that green were Dale Earnhardt Jr., Biffle, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Kahne.
Kahne, whose car seemed to improve significantly in the second half of the race, needed only seven laps of green-flag racing to take the lead from Hamlin.
Kahne, who won the 600 for the third time, led the final 44 laps of the 400-lap race.
There were only five cautions, making the race the fastest 600 in history. The time of the race was three hours, 51 minutes and 14 seconds. The previous quickest 600 was three hours, 56 minutes and 55 seconds in 1995.
Tony Stewart’s chances of a strong finish took a hit on lap 264 during a round of green-flag pit stops. Brad Keselowski, who was leaving his pit, hit Stewart’s car in the rear on pit road and turned the No. 14 around. Stewart corrected the car and then slid sideways to get into his pit. The delay pushed him a lap down, and he finished 25th, three laps down.
Later, Johnson’s pit crew was guilty of a rare mistake as a fuel can was stuck in the No. 48’s gas opening as he left the pit under green, dragging a crew member with it. Johnson was hit with a stop-and-go penalty, dropping him off the lead pace. He finished 11th.
Neither Hamlin nor Busch could contend with Kahne over the final miles.
“We had a solid car,” Hamlin said. “During the day when Kyle was leading, our car wasn't as good. We just hung around eighth to 10th, fought a really tight condition. I don't know how many spring rubbers we adjusted on the car during the race, but it was a ton.
“As the track cooled off, it freed up for us, the car got better. Ultimately, it gave us a shot to win.
“The first 10 laps of the last run, we got to them, but we wore our front tires trying to get around them.”
The race’s first half was relatively uneventful.
Kyle Busch and Biffle were the stars of the show during those 200 laps, Biffle leading 117 and Busch 55. Only four other drivers – Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Aric Almirola and David Ragan – led laps during the first half of the race.
The first 111 laps of the race were run under green, and Biffle had the dominant car during that period, leading 84 of the first 100 laps.
The first caution flew at lap 112 because of debris on the track, and another debris flag was unfurled at lap 133.
On lap 169, Travis Kvapil brought out the third caution when he sailed into the wall in turns three and four.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.