Back-to-back wins at Lowe's give No. 9 Dodge team confidence boost

5/26/2008 - NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. -- Kasey Kahne didn't need the popular vote to get him into Victory Lane at Lowe's Motor Speedway for the second time in eight days.

Just a fast car.

And a little luck.

Kahne, who won last week's All-Star race at LMS after being voted by fans into the main event, took advantage of Tony Stewart's misfortune with three laps remaining to capture Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600.

The victory snapped a 52-race losing streak for the 28-year-old, whose last points win was here in the 2006 fall race.

It had been so long since Kahne won that he almost questioned it as he took the checkered flag.

"What happened to Stewart?" he yelled over his radio.

Responded crew chief Kenny Francis: "He had a flat right front, buddy, flat right front. You won, buddy. Great job!"

Kahne still seemed shocked he'd won.

"I was just making sure," he said with that boyish grin that makes him so popular among female fans.

The NASCAR official in the flag stand must have been shocked as well. He dropped the white flag signaling one lap to go onto the track as Kahne passed the start-finish line.

"I saw the white flag when it was dropped," Kahne said. "I knew what was going on."

So did Francis throughout the race. He opted to take two right-side tires on Kahne's next-to-last pit stop with about 75 laps remaining while Stewart and most of the field took none.

"These tires aren't designed to run 100 laps," Francis said. "Goodyear has a great tire, but it's hard enough to go 60 laps, much less a hundred."

Any number of drivers could have won. Dale Earnhardt Jr. appeared headed to his first win in more than two years, holding a three-second lead with 102 laps to go when a right front tire blew and sent him into the wall.

Thanks to great fuel strategy, he rallied to fifth.

Kyle Busch appeared headed for his second win of the weekend -- he won the Nationwide Series race Saturday -- and fourth of the Cup season when he took the lead from former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson with 53 laps left.

He finished third after being passed late by Greg Biffle, who also finished second to Kahne in the All-Star race.

Stewart definitely had a shot at winning, holding more than a five-second lead when his right front tire went down to keep him winless in 2008. He finished 18th.

That left Kahne to join Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Davey Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Johnson as the only drivers to win the All-Star race and 600 in the same year.

Kahne wasn't making any apologies for the way it happened.

"It wasn't like we weren't fast," said Kahne, who started second and led six times for 66 laps. "It wasn't like we couldn't run with Dale Jr. early in the race. Tony was behind us when I pitted [the last time]. He took less gas and got out front.

"We were a first- and second-place car at the end of the race. Tony had a first- and second-place car when he had that [flat] at the end. Luck is a part of everyday life."

After what he has been though the past year and a half, going winless after winning six times in 2006, Kahne will take luck.

"I'm definitely smiling a lot more the last couple of weeks," he said. "If I can't win races, I'm pretty upset, and it's been a while. Since last Saturday night, I haven't been such a bear, I guess. I've been nicer to my girlfriend, my family."

The win is the product of a long-term plan begun by Ray Evernham when he sold majority ownership of Evernham Motorsports to Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr. last season. It is the product of a complete overhaul in the team structure, beginning with the hiring of director of competition Mike McCardle.

It is the product of a more stringent testing plan.

"This has been a heck of a team effort," Gillett said as he celebrated his first win as a Cup owner. "There really was a turning point, in my opinion. It was the fans. When the fans voted Kasey in last weekend, it changed everything."

Ironically, it was a decision to take no tires at the end of the All-Star race that got Kahne that win.

But Gillett's point was well taken. There was an extra bounce in the step of most of those associated with Gillett Evernham Motorsports this past week. Kahne admitted he provided Francis with more valuable input than he had all season.

Evernham, considered a master setup man when he helped Gordon win three of his four championships, said the human element is something that can't be overlooked in a sport in which engineering and science have become the standard for excellence.

"I can tell you this team has had a much different step since they won that [All-Star] race," Evernham said. "That momentum is something -- I don't know how you measure it in professional sports."

Kahne agreed.

"That's a big part of confidence, and it shows on the racetrack," he said.

But it's not like Kahne needed confidence at LMS. He won both races here in 2006 and had a Nationwide Series win here in 2007. His numbers now are so good that he officially changed this to his favorite track -- Atlanta apparently was his previous favorite -- during his postrace news conference.

He also hopes his two-week performance has changed the perception of him among his peers and made him a contender for the championship.

"It has to have changed a lot," said Kahne, who moved up two spots into the top 12 who will make the championship Chase. "It has to have changed a lot. You race with them each week, and you race each other a certain way. When your speed gets up, it makes other people race you a little different."

It doesn't hurt to have the fans on your side as well.

"We were headed home," Kahne said, reflecting on the previous weekend. "We were out of the All-Star race, and the fans put us in. It felt good to get voted in by the fans.

"From there, as a team, we had a great race car. We worked on it, and Kenny made a great call at the end and took no tires, and we won it."

And the momentum carried into Sunday night.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.