Kahne takes checkered flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway

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By Brenda Sexton

The Courier-Herald

Kasey Kahne became the first NASCAR Nextel Cup driver in 29 years to put a Dodge in Victory Lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway when he scored his second career victory in 76 starts. The last to win Atlanta in a Dodge was “the King” of racing, Richard Petty.

In a rain-delayed Monday morning race, Kahne held off a late-race charge by veteran Mark Martin and kept his No. 9 Dodge in front of a host of other contenders to earn his second career Nextel Cup win, his first coming at Richmond in May.

Kahne has four top-five finishes in five starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and he's finished fourth, fourth and first in the past three races after opening the season with an 11th-place run in the Daytona 500. Kahne led four times for 85 laps Monday.

“I had the lead and I was trying to save my tires as much as I could,” Kahne said in post-race comments. “As Mark was reeling me in, I was doing all I could to go fast. When I cleared ‘em, I think Mark was doing all he could to get up to me and clear me at the same time. As far as me getting a little more, I was giving about all I had those last 30 laps there. I definitely was trying as hard as I could when Mark got there. I wasn't about to let him pass me easily, that's for sure. It was quite a battle. I'm very happy how it all turned out.

“Beating Tony Stewart (in Richmond) was huge,” Kahne said. “That was my first win, and it was awesome. Tony was excited for us. He would have much rather won, but he was excited for us winning and he got to run with us throughout the entire race. Today to beat Mark Martin, probably the one guy who is the cleanest, classiest race car driver out there every week... He's also one of the fastest and hardest chargers, one of the hardest guys to beat every week. To beat those type of race car drivers in my two Nextel Cup wins is huge.”

“I'm proud of all the guys in our new team structure and how Kasey and this team came together,” car owner and CEO of Evernham Motorsports Ray Evernham said. “He did make a good call on what he needed for the rest of the race. I think the track started out away from us a good bit. It came to us as the race went on. The pit crew had a great day. It's great to see this team finally get what it deserves. They had a great day today, they did everything right and it was good to see them finally get to victory lane.

“Kasey is different this year. We talked about things I needed to fix in my organization for him to give him better equipment and give him what he needed. We also talked about things that he needed to do like finishing races if his car wasn't so good rather than crashing. I think he worked on that. I think he worked hard on some of the things he needed to do on his own, and he has come out really, really focused this year. He's worked on his communication, and he's been a tremendous player to work with. Kenny (Francis, team director) can tell you he's working hard to give the team the effort that they need. He comes to the meetings, he's at the shop. He's thinking about the car, so not only has he done the things we asked him to do, but he's gone over and above and done some things we couldn't imagine.”

It was a good weekend all the way around for Kahne, who grabbed the Nextel Cup pole Friday with the fastest qualifying time and finished second in Saturday's Busch Series.

Add that to Monday's win and the NASCAR 2004 Rookie of the Year's fourth career NASCAR Busch Series victory and a fourth-place Nextel Cup finish at Las Vegas March 12 and momentum does look to be on his side.

“This weekend we ran second in the Busch race, qualified first in the Cup race and ended up winning it today,” Kahne said. “It was just a great group effort by the guys, and I'm proud to be driving for Ray right now, that's for sure. He's worked really hard to make his cars get into victory lane and up front in the points.”

Kahne and the Dodge Dealers/UAW-Dodge team take that momentum with them to Tennessee. As of Monday afternoon, Kahne moved into the No. 2 spot in the Nextel Cup drivers' point standings, 50 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. Both Busch and Nextel Cup series head to Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday and Sunday. Busch Series coverage begins Saturday at noon on FOX. Nextel Cup racing begins at 10:30 a.m. Sunday on FOX.

Kahne's pole Friday is his first this season and qualifies him to run in February's Budweiser Shootout, a race exclusive to past Shootout winners and each year's pole winners. Kahne has been a fixture in the race since taking over the No. 9 for Bill Elliott.

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