By The Associated Press
CONCORD, N.C. — After Jimmie Johnson won the Southern 500 on May 12 to deliver victory No. 200 to Hendrick Motorsports, he presented the team owner Rick Hendrick with a helmet signed by almost all of the drivers who had won races for the team over nearly 30 years.
Kasey Kahne’s name was not on that helmet. After joining the powerhouse Hendrick team this season to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet, Kahne had struggled through bad breaks and miscues at the start of the season and had not won a race.
That was until Sunday night. Kahne may not have made the first 200, but he delivered win No. 201 to Hendrick and moved into contention for a berth in the 12-car playoff Chase field with his third career victory in the Coca-Cola 600.
Kahne ran away from the field in the final 100 laps in a race that had little suspense after Kahne overcame Greg Biffle’s No. 16 Ford, which had led 204 laps before fading. Kahne wound up beating the runner-up, Denny Hamlin by more than four seconds — a wide margin. Kyle Busch was third and Biffle fourth.
“It feels good to get a win for Hendrick Motorsports,” said Kahne, who agreed in 2010 to join the team but had to wait until 2012 for the seat to be available. “It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a year and a half, to drive for Hendrick Motorsports.”
It was the quickest 600 in history, wrapping up in 3 hours 51 minutes with no multicar pileups along the way. But no one was quicker than Kahne, whose car best adapted to the cooling temperatures of the season’s longest race, which started in the heat of the afternoon and ended shortly after 10 p.m.
Kahne’s victory was hardly a surprise even though he entered the race 16th in the standings. He had fallen as low as 33rd in the standings and was 31st after losing his engine at Martinsville, Va., on April 1. But Kahne had put together five consecutive top-10 finishes going into the 600 — six if you include his ninth-place showing in the All-Star race.
“We’re gaining,” said Kahne, who moved up to 15th in the standings. “I think that’s like seven top 10s in a row counting the All-Star race, so we’re making big strides.”
It was another dominant night for Hendrick Motorsports, which struggled to find victory lane this season until Johnson won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Johnson followed with a win May 19 in the All-Star race worth $1 million, and Kahne gave Hendrick his third victory in a row.
Hendrick had all four of its cars challenging at various points. But none of the others could keep up with Kahne, who led 96 laps. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sixth, his seventh top 10 in the last eight races.
“We want to win so bad we can’t stand it,” Earnhardt said. “And we’re getting kind of close. It feels good to be competitive. I don’t want to take our consistency for granted, but we would like to improve just a little bit more and we’ll get some wins.”
Jeff Gordon finished seventh and Johnson finished 11th after a pit-road miscue late in the race.
“It happens,” Johnson said. “Last week things couldn’t have gone any better, Darlington they went amazing and this week we had a few little issues.”
Biffle, the series points leader, appeared to have the car to beat. He led 194 of the first 300 laps of the 400-lap race before falling back. The fourth-place finish did keep him in first place, 10 points ahead of his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.
Chip Ganassi, the car owner who won the Indianapolis 500 earlier Sunday with Dario Franchitti, arrived in Charlotte in time to spend most of the race on pit road. But he did not manage a double. Juan Pablo Montoya was 20th for Ganassi, with his teammate Jamie McMurray 21st.
Danica Patrick, who said Thursday she could race in the Indianapolis 500 again, may want to return sooner rather than later. Patrick, who finished third in the Indy 500 in 2009, became the second woman to race in the 600, after Janet Guthrie in 1976.
But Patrick fell a lap behind 42 laps into the 600 and was five laps back by the end. She finished 30th as she continued to learn how to race stock cars. She is racing full time in the lower-level Nationwide Series and running 10 Cup events as well as she tries to get up to speed in Nascar. The plan is for Patrick to race full time in the Cup series next year.