BRISTOL, Tenn. — As brilliantly deft and daring as Kasey Kahne was in his inaugural Sprint Cup victory at Bristol Motor Speedway, even more impressive is how good he’s been all season.
The hot starts of defending series champion Brad Keselowski (first in the standings with finishes of fourth, fourth, third and third) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (nine points out of the lead with a career-best four straight top 10s to start the year) have garnered much of the attention.
It’s easy to neglect the performance of Kahne – just as he might have been overlooked after the Food City 500. The Hendrick Motorsports driver outdueled Kyle Busch and Keselowski in stirring side-by-side battles Sunday near the end of a race that probably will be remembered mostly for a postrace confrontation between the teams of Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
“I did hear the crowd, so I knew something was going on,” Kahne said with a smile. “I’ll go back and check the highlights.”
Pole-sitter Kyle Busch finished second, followed by Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Brian Vickers, Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray.
If not for some misfortune, this season’s highlights might have featured lots more of his No. 5 Chevrolet.
The 15th victory of Kahne’s career could have been his third of the season, which he has started apparently having lost none of the momentum from a 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup in which he finished a career-best fourth.
“I think it’s all definitely going in the right direction,” said Kahne, who had a strong car collected in a Daytona 500 crash and was beat by Matt Kenseth last week at Las Vegas despite leading a race-high 114 laps.
It’s been a stark contrast to how Kahne started his first campaign with Hendrick. He didn’t earn his first top 10 of 2012 until the seventh race and needed two regular-season victories to make the Chase as a wild-card berth.
After opening ’13 with a 36th at Daytona International Speedway and a 19th at Phoenix International Raceway, those same concerns returned.
Kahne won Bristol with the same car he struggled with at Phoenix, which delighted crew chief Kenny Francis.
“It’s a good car, we just missed it a bit (at Phoenix),” Francis said. “Seems like we’ve had good cars every week. I feel like it’s a great start. Hopefully we can keep building on the momentum.”
A debut win at Bristol, which is considered perhaps the most physically demanding track in NASCAR, should help.
With the high line again the preferred route around the concrete oval, making passes with even a fast car was an extremely tricky game of sliding in front of a competitor and then scooting away. Kahne lost the lead to Keselowski during a frenzied sequence fighting through lapped traffic with 53 laps remaining, but he patiently reeled him back in and pounced when the Penske driver was slow on the final restart.
“Bristol’s one of those tracks you really feel like you need to win,” Kahne said. “There’s so many things that are thrown at you. It’s a big confidence builder.”
The complexion of the race was altered significantly with a little more than 100 laps remaining when a bizarre crash eliminated the two cars running first and second.
Jeff Gordon, who had taken the lead under caution with a two-tire stop with about 175 laps remaining, suffered a flat tire entering Turn 4 on lap 390. His No. 24 Chevrolet skidded up into the wall and was plowed into by the second-place Toyota of Kenseth, whose No. 20 suffered major front-end damage in the incident.
Gordon said the right front blew as soon as he pulled down the banking to pass the lapped car of Terry Labonte.
“I hate that for Matt Kenseth,” Gordon said. “He was coming, and it was just a matter of time before he caught us. We needed points. This definitely isn’t going to get us many.”
Kenseth was vying for his second straight victory after winning last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“There’s not a lot either one of us can do about that,” Kenseth said. “We just got a little behind. I just wanted to be in the lead for the last pit stop. There was nowhere to go.”
It was a typical race of attrition on the 0.533-mile oval, which produced another rough-and-tumble affair in the second race since an overhaul of its layout last summer.
It didn’t take long for a recent run of Bristol misfortune to continue for Tony Stewart. The three-time champion’s No. 14 Chevrolet suffered a cut left-rear tire after making contact shortly after the green flag, causing Stewart to hit the Turn 1 wall on lap 9.
He suffered a broken brake line in the crash and lost 14 laps for repairs.
This was Stewart’s fourth finish outside the top 25 in the past six races at Bristol. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 since a runner-up showing in March 2010.
Danica Patrick was 28th. She started 41st after taking a provisional and finished five laps down.