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Kasey Kahne grabs first NASCAR Nextel victory
By Brenda Sexton
It wasn't a matter of "if." It was just a matter of "when."
That moment came Saturday night under the lights at Richmond International Raceway when Enumclaw driver Kasey Kahne held off veteran Tony Stewart on a restart with seven laps remaining in the Chevy American Revolution 400 and cruised to his first NASCAR Nextel Cup career victory in 47 starts.
"We waited longer than I would have thought to win," Kahne said in post-race interviews. "We started out last year good and had a lot of seconds and thirds and ran up front. We thought we could win races, but we weren't able to do it. We had to wait a long time, but at least we finally won one and hopefully we'll get more now. I was nervous on those last restarts."
Kahne led seven times for 242 laps - the most in his career - and scored a 1.674-second victory over Stewart.
"Tony went to the outside and got a great run on me on that last restart," Kahne said. "He got a fender on me and I had to race him into turns three and four and we were able to clear him again. It's a great feeling to be able to race Tony Stewart like that all day long.
"To beat Tony Stewart just means a lot because of how good the guy is. Every single week he's up front, no matter if his car is bad or good. He finds some way to finish in the top 10 and keep good points. Tonight he had a great car, and he was up front all night. This is one of his best tracks. To be able to race with him and beat him, it's just awesome to beat that good of a driver."
Stewart was one of the first to congratulate Kahne on the win.
It was a race that was won in the pits as much as on the track.
"Basically what we did, we scuffed a set of tires yesterday to prepare for the end of the race," No. 9 crew chief Tommy Baldwin said. "We had a good idea how long the tires would last in the run. We knew with 60 laps to go we were done with the pit stops. We were sticking to our plan. If the caution came out anywhere between 290 and on we were staying out the whole run. We basically knew that. That lap 353 there was no way we were coming in. We ran our fastest lap with three laps to go, so the Goodyears were really good tonight.
"This is a big weight off all of our shoulders, including Kasey's. I know getting this first victory we can ease up on the tension and really go racing, really clear our minds out. I think it's going to be for the better," Baldwin said.
"It's really big. We never knew when it would happen, but we knew it was just a matter of time," Kasey's dad Kelly Kahne said Monday morning. Kelly, who has been at most of the races missed this one, but talked to his sons Kasey and Kale after the race and said the 25-year-old Enumclaw High graduate was happy and relieved.
"It's better, it happening now," Kelly said. "Now he knows why it happened and how it happened."
Winning a Nextel Cup race wasn't "officially" on the Kahne's' five-year plan, but winning is always on the plan and, then again, the plan stopped in 2004.
Kelly said the five-year plan was created as a marketing tool to help find sponsorship when Kasey was racing Kelly's sprint cars. Most everything on that plan has come true including Kahne's capturing Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year honors last season.
"What's so amazing," Kelly said. "Is we did that five-year plan six years ago and when you look at the history, we're not that far off."
Kahne, who has two NASCAR Busch Series and two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series wins under his belt, has been a runner-up six times in his brief Nextel Cup career. Saturday's win was historic in other ways as well.
Kahne and his No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge Charger was a factor most of the race. He raced to the pole, the sixth of his Cup career, Friday afternoon with a near-record setting performance. It was his second pole in as many weeks. The last driver to win from the Bud Pole was Joe Nemechek at Kansas in October 2004. The last driver to win at Richmond from the pole was Kahne's mentor Bill Elliott in March 1992. Kahne replaced Elliott in the No. 9 last season.
He was also the pole winner for Friday night's Busch race, in which he finished fourth. He became the first driver in Richmond International Raceway history to sweep both poles and the first driver since Mark Martin at Rockingham, N.C., in October 1999 to win Busch and Cup poles in the same weekend.
Kahne also earned 10 extra points - five for leading a lap and five for leading the most laps - which helped propel him up four spots into 15th in Nextel Cup drivers' standings - within striking distance of the Top 10.
It was also a big win for Dodge and Ray Evernham, team owner and Evernham Motorsports CEO.
Kahne's win was the first Cup win for Dodge Charger in 11 starts this season and the first Dodge Charger victory since Neil Bonnett won at Ontario, Calif., in November 1977. It's the second straight victory for the Evernham Motorsports Dodge team at Richmond. Jeremy Mayfield won at Richmond in the No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge last fall.
"It's more special to me, this win and what it means because this will always be remembered as Kasey Kahne's first win in the next several years," Evernham said in post-race comments. "He's really going to do big things in the sport, and some day he and Tommy will be sitting at the head table in New York and things like that we hope, but we can always look back at this and say, 'this is where they got their first win together.' To do that and be the first win for the new Dodge Charger, it means a lot..."
It was also a big win for fans across the nation and the Plateau.
"I cried my eyes out when he won," Buckley's Lori Cross said. "I'm Kasey's biggest fan, and probably his oldest.
"He's a hometown boy. He said 'thank you' to us," she said of Kahne's television comments after the race. He also thanked his close-knit family.
Cross, a long-time NASCAR fan, is on a campaign to vote Kasey in as NASCAR's sexiest driver. She said the young Kahne is trailing veteran Dale Jarrett this week, but there is still time for fans to vote at www.msn.foxsports.com/nascar. Cross can now stop her all-star ballot voting. Kahne's victory pushed him into Saturday's non-points Nextel Cup All-Star Challenge from Lowe's Motor Speedway in North Carolina. It was the last opportunity before the Nextel Open for Kahne to qualify for the event.
"It was great to do that," Kahne said. "I thought about it during the week. This was our last chance (to get in the all-star race) other than winning the challenge or something like that, but during the race I didn't think about that once. I forgot all about it, and I didn't think about it until I think one of my interviews. One of the pit guys yelled it, and once I remembered it, it was huge to do it the week before the all-star race. I never thought about it during the race. We had a lot of other things to be thinking about.
"We've been on the edge of winning races for a year and 10 races. We were able to do it tonight. Tonight was just the night. We came so close and always thought when it was our time we'd win a race. Tonight was our time, and it happens to be before the all-star race and that's even better. It gives the pit crew another chance to perform next weekend and show their stuff. They're pretty tight. They were great all night tonight and next week in the all-star race they'll show their stuff again and we'll be able to start up front in that."
The Nextel All-Star Challenge begins with television coverage of the Nextel Open at 4 p.m. on FX and continues with the All-Star Challenge at 6 p.m. Nextel Cup points racing continues at Lowe's Motor Speedway May 29.
"I think we're on track. We've got two poles a first and a third the past two weeks. We're on a roll. This was our last chance to get in the all-star race and we were able to do it. We look forward to running at Charlotte next weekend."
Brenda Sexton can be reached at email@example.com.