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Kahne rises on Stewart's flat

May 26, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.C. -- NASCAR's Kasey Kahne passed the sport's hottest driver and then took advantage of last-second luck to end his 52-race winless streak Sunday.

After Kahne passed Kyle Busch but lost the lead himself to Tony Stewart, Kahne won the Coca-Cola 600 anyway when Stewart had a flat and hit the wall with only three laps left at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

It was the first Sprint Cup points victory for Kahne, 28, since the Gillett Evernham Motorsports driver won the fall race here during his banner season in 2006.

"We were there all night," Kahne said. Stewart "had a problem and we were in position and the luck was on our side."

Kahne also won the series' non-points All-Star race here a week ago, and both victories indicated the Dodge driver is finally emerging from a deep slump that started after he won six times in 2006.

Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing finished second; and Busch, Stewart's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, was third.

Biffle teammate Carl Edwards also had a shot at a top-three finish, but his Ford ran out of fuel on the final lap.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had perhaps the strongest car all night, had his bid for his first win in two years vanish when he also scraped the wall. A disappointed Busch -- who started on the pole and led 61 laps -- said that even though Kahne won with Stewart's misfortune, Kahne's team now "is a force to be reckoned with, it wasn't like they just backed into it."

Busch, who leads the Cup point standings, already has won three Cup races and six other events in NASCAR's Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series this season.

After the field made gas-only pit stops in the closing 10 laps, Stewart emerged with a six-second lead over Kahne and appeared to have the race in hand. But with three laps left in the grueling 400-lap race, the right front tire on his No. 20 Toyota went flat and he hit the wall, leaving the two-time champion with an 18th-place finish.

Stewart declined to comment after the race, but his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, said, "I don't even know what to say, I'm so frustrated. We must have run something over or had a small leak or something. It's hard to believe."

"Frustration" also was the key word for Earnhardt.

NASCAR's most popular driver led the most laps, 76, and was in the lead with 103 laps left when he banged into the outside wall and then was hit from behind by J.J. Yeley's Toyota.

Earnhardt, the red "88" paint erased from the right side of his car, dashed into the pits for repairs and returned to the race.

He finished fifth, just behind teammate Jeff Gordon. That kept Earnhardt third in the point standings -- the highest of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers. But Earnhardt again failed to get a victory.

"I don't know what happened" when he hit the wall, Earnhardt said. "I think we blew a right rear tire. I hate it for my guys. We were running really strong."

Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson, a five-time winner at Lowe's, also was strong but suffered engine failure with less than 50 laps remaining -- a rare occurrence for a Hendrick car. The reigning Cup champion finished 39th in the 43-car field.

"It dropped a cylinder and we were just running around on seven cylinders," he said.

The race, NASCAR's longest, started in the late-afternoon on a warm, muggy day and ended under the lights.

After Busch led the first 30 laps, his older brother Kurt Busch, Johnson and Brian Vickers took turns leading the race.

Vickers was leading on Lap 185 when his left rear wheel suddenly broke off, sending his Red Bull Toyota slamming into the outside wall.

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The slumping U.S. economy and soaring gas prices appear to be taking their toll on NASCAR fans, even in the heart of stock-car racing country. NASCAR estimated the race's attendance at 160,000, still a major turnout for a sporting event. But the track has 165,000 seats.

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Despite recurring complaints from some teams that the Car of Tomorrow remains too ill-handling, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said the sanctioning body has no plans to change the car.

The teams "can't all figure it out if we're changing things as we go along," France said of the car, which was phased into the Cup series last year and became mandatory this season.

"Some [teams] are figuring it out faster than others," he said. "But the car is doing fine. We're satisfied."

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Kawasaki off-road motorcycle racer James Stewart, rebounding from a knee injury early this year, won the opening AMA Toyota Motocross Series race Sunday at Glen Helen Raceway in Devore.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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