LONG POND, Pa. — A month ago Kasey Kahne didn't think his team was capable of winning any time soon.
Now, he can't seem to stop winning.
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Kahne's No. 9 Dodge team overcame an early pit miscue to win Sunday's Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway in dominating fashion.
The win is Kahne's second Sprint Cup Series victory in three weeks and his third during a four-week span, including his $1 million victory in the Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
A series that lately has been cluttered by headlines from Kyle Busch is suddenly awash in a sea of red, the colors of Kahne's team. And Kahne, who was 14th in points after Darlington, S.C., on May 10, is now ninth. He trails the leader, Busch, by 365.
”We had such a good car all weekend from the time practice started to qualifying first and then winning,“ said Kahne, who picked up his ninth win in 158 Cup starts.
”There was nothing close when we were out front.“
Remaining there was the key.
Early on, Kahne and Jimmie Johnson appeared to have two of the fastest cars. But during a pit stop on Lap 63, Kahne's crew chief, Kenny Francis, had a change of heart and wanted a two-tire stop instead of four.
There was a problem. The tire changer had removed three lug nuts on a left-side wheel, so Kahne had to return to pit road. He restarted in 38th place.
”I was pretty down, pretty mad at myself,“ Francis said. ”The biggest thing I was afraid of was if it was going to rain and we would not have time to get back up there.
”I was a little bit relieved that we got back up there so I could stop kicking myself.“
Kahne was back in the top 10 by Lap 90 of 200, and he never fell below seventh after that except when making his final green-flag stop for fuel with 25 laps remaining.
With 16 laps left, Kahne easily maneuvered around Brian Vickers to take the lead for the final time, and then pulled away to a nearly four-second victory.
”When I saw him in my mirror, I didn't think it would be over,“ Vickers said. ”But I thought, boy, this is going to be tough.“
Although Kahne said he was confident he had the car that could battle from the back of the field, he was concerned.
”When you're back there, you know, it's tough racing back there,“ he said. ”It's tough racing all the way through these fields and 20 to 30th (place), that's a tough spot to be because everybody is racing so hard.
”My car was just so good today, and the longer the race went, the hotter the track got, the slicker the racetrack got, the better our car got, so that just made it easier.“
It was a hot day on the track, made worse for some drivers because their cool boxes malfunctioned. But the win made the heat a bit more bearable for Kahne.
”I felt pretty good all day. My heart from about Lap 120 to the end was pumping pretty hard,“ he said. ”But it wasn't like I was overheating.“
After finishing sixth, Jimmie Johnson looked weary after climbing out of his car.
”I feel great, it is just those first steps after 500 miles in a car, the belts are so tight and you are trying to get the blood back in your feet,“ Johnson said. ”I was pushing the gas pedal so hard trying to catch the guys in front of me, my foot is asleep.“
Although Vickers would have liked his second win, his runner-up finish was his best since joining Team Red Bull in 2007. The organization also got a career-best 12th from AJ Allmendinger.
”I'm pleased but not satisfied. I'm real proud of everybody,“ Vickers said of his team. ”They did it (Saturday) night and (Sunday), because we were a bucket (Saturday) in practice. I felt like we had the best car on the racetrack at the end of the race. We just didn't have any tires.“
Denny Hamlin finished third, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fourth. Each seemed to be happy simply to finish. The race lasted 3 hours 59 minutes — not including the stretch of nearly eight minutes when the race was stopped because of a passing shower.
Asked to describe his day, Earnhardt replied, ”Fun wouldn't be in there.“
Hamlin, gaunt and pale, said the new car used full-time in the series this year is much hotter than the old car.
”This is the longest race I think I've ever been part of, for sure,“ Hamlin said. ”It just seemed like it took forever.“