AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kasey Kahne left a lovely parting gift, winning the Kobalt Tools 500 for Red Bull Racing Team’s second victory in NASCAR.
“Some of these guys haven’t won before and it felt like I haven’t won,” Kahne said. “It’s been a long season. The guys haven’t given up. We keep getting better as the season goes and it takes time to finish things up and get better when you come to something new. These guys have done an unbelievable job. It feels really good to get Red Bull in victory lane — I just wanted to win for them really bad."
It feels really good to get Red Bull in victory lane — I just wanted to win for them really bad.
For Red Bull Racing Team, it was the second victory in the team’s five-year history and first since Brian Vickers won at Michigan in August 2009. For Kahne, the 12th victory of his Sprint Cup career ended an 81-race winless streak dating back to Atlanta in September 2009. It was his first victory and fifth top 10 in 15 races at Phoenix International Raceway.
“It feels so good. Been a long time coming,” said Kahne, the season’s 18th different winner.
Wrapping up a one-year deal in the No. 4 Red Bull Toyota, Kahne has been the pesky fly that won’t go away as the Chase and the championship come down to the final race at Homestead. Last week at Texas, Kahne finished third behind Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. This week, it was two positions better ahead of Edwards and Stewart, capping a late-season run that has Kahne running right with the championship contenders.
Kahne’s average finish in the nine Chase races is 7.89 — with five top fives — and he’s been the highest-finishing non-Chase driver in five of the past seven events.
“Just not giving up. I think one big thing is working with Kenny,” Kahne said of crew chief Kenny Francis. “That guy, as hard as he works, I want to work as hard and I want to do as much as I can to be up front. I know Keith (Rodden, race engineer) is the same way and all these Red Bull guys are behind him."
As one of the longest standing driver-crew chief tandems in the Sprint Cup garage, Kahne and Francis are in their sixth season together in 2011. The two have combined for 11 wins, 38 top fives and 12 poles. They also own nonpoints victories in the 2008 All-Star event and 2010 Duels at Daytona.“Couldn’t be prouder of the shop and Red Bull Racing,” Francis said. “As hard as these guys have worked all year … putting the cars together and building just superb equipment. I’m so proud we could win this. This is the biggest win ever for me, personally."
The race at Phoenix, with its newly paved and reconfigured surface, came down to fuel mileage. The field pitted under the eighth and final caution period with 92 laps to go, and the race took on a one-more-stop strategy as it went green to the finish.
Kurt Busch stretched his fuel mileage a bit too far and pitted from the lead with 33 laps to go. Edwards assumed first, with Kahne in tow. And they all followed suit: Kahne pitted, Edwards, Stewart and Brad Keselowski. As the exchange cycled through, Kahne picked up about two seconds and found himself in the lead, which he held for the final 14 laps before finishing .802 seconds ahead of Edwards.
“If we didn’t have that little bit of a lead, we wouldn’t have been able to hang on,” Kahne said. “It was big to pop in there early, try to get ahead of Carl and then hang on at that point.
“We fell back a little bit early in the race and then came back and just kept getting it better. It was slippery early, but as the tires built heat and got rubber on the track, the tires came in pretty good. We just made adjustments, made the right adjustments. And the guys, they just kept working, thinking about it and they figured it out after a while. I felt Friday we were one of the best cars and by the end of the race today we were one of the best cars."
Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth re-introduced themselves on lap 177, when Vickers’ No. 83 Red Bull Toyota connected with Kenseth’s No. 17 in turn three. Payback for the Martinsville incident, when Kenseth plowed Vickers? “I wasn’t planning on paying him back,” Vickers said. “He wrecked me at Martinsville, he got wrecked here. I’m not saying I wasn’t going to pay him back, I’m just saying that wasn’t it."
Kenseth got the worst end of it, and the damage was bad enough to drop Vickers to the back of the lead lap. NASCAR then tagged the No. 83 with “too fast exiting” the pits late in the race, and Vickers finished one lap down in 23rd. After qualifying 19th, 20-year-old Cole Whitt made his Sprint Cup debut in a third Red Bull Racing Team Toyota, the No. 84.
At the start of the race, the Camping World Truck Series rookie called Sunday a “big learning day.” He felt his first tight Sprint Cup car for most of the race, spun on the backstretch just past halfway and fought to get in free-pass position. Welcome to Sprint Cup with a respectable 25th-place finish.