CONCORD, N.C. – The wait was worth it.
Kasey Kahne had to wait 21 months to start his job at Hendrick Motorsports, and another four months to finally drive the No. 5 Chevrolet to a victory.
His patience was rewarded Sunday night at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when he led the final 44 laps to win the Coca-Cola 600.
Others were faster in the first 450 miles in stock car’s longest race, but like he’s done for so much of the past two years, he was waiting his turn.
Kahne did what nobody else could do – catch and eventually pass Greg Biffle. He never let Biffle get too far out front, even during a stretch when Biffle led 204 of 319 laps.
“When the speeds picked up and it cooled down, our car was a little bit harder on the nose,” Biffle said. “I was driving for all I was worth. Kasey got better at the end; we kind of fell off.”
When he caught Biffle, they ran side-by-side for several laps. They swapped the lead three times before Kahne was shuffled back to eighth-place during a yellow flag pit stop.
When the race restarted, he passed five cars on one lap. Four laps after that, he was back in the lead and pulling away.
The victory was Kahne’s third in the past seven years, and each came with a different team. He was hired by car owner Rick Hendrick early in the 2010 season, but he couldn’t start with the team until this year because Hendrick also had Mark Martin under contract.
Kahne spent the rest of 2010 at Richard Petty Motorsports before being fired with five races to go. He finished the season – and all of 2011 – with Red Bull Racing.
The long wait finally ended this year. And Sunday’s victory helped ease some of the anxiety.
“For them to make me part of their company, it’s wonderful to be part of the company,” Kahne said. “We’re gaining. That’s seven top-10s in a row, counting the all-star race. The 600 is my favorite race.”
Kahne, who was making his 300th career start in the Sprint Cup Series, started his employment at Hendrick Motorsports with finishes of 29th or worse in four of his first six races. Since then, he’s had six consecutive finishes of eighth or better.
“We started a little slow,” Kahne said. “The adjustments were awesome. It feels good. We’ve put together six or seven good races in a row.”
Biffle led a race-best 204 laps, but his car faded during the stretch drive. He wound up fourth, behind second-place Denny Hamlin and third-place Kyle Busch.
Biffle dominated in the daytime, leading 97 of the first 113 laps. As the sun set, Kyle Busch took his turn out front by leading 55 of the next 77 laps.
But when the lights came on at the 1½-mile race track, Biffle’s car came alive again. He got back out front on Lap 191, and from there he led 81 of the next 87 laps.
No matter how many times Biffle was out front, Kahne was always close behind. On Lap 281 he passed Biffle and they battled back and forth for 10 laps. But once he got to the extra 100 miles, Kahne methodically pulled away to his third victory in the 600 in seventh years.
A year ago Kahne was the leader at the 500-mile mark, but the additional distance led to a 22nd-place finish, one lap off the pace.
He led again at the 500-mile mark this year. This time he added to his advantage during the final 100 miles. He was nearly one third of a mile ahead.
The rest of the top 10 finishers were: Brad Keselowski in fifth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in sixth, Jeff Gordon in seventh, Kevin Harvick in eighth, Carl Edwards in ninth and Matt Kenseth in 10th.
The series moves to the Dover International Speedway next Sunday.