Kahne continues strong start; experience fun for Lester

Updated: March 21, 2006, 1:19 PM ET
Associated Press

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Bill Lester was proud of his accomplishment, though a little embarrassed by all the attention.

"I'm looking forward to when it's about racing instead of race," he said.

Bill Lester
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesBill Lester became the first African-American driver to race in NASCAR's top series since 1986.

Lester became the first black driver to compete in NASCAR's top series since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986, finishing six laps off the pace in 38th place Monday at the Golden Corral 500, won by Kasey Kahne.

The 45-year-old Lester, a regular in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series since 2002, accomplished one of his stated goals, avoiding a crash and racing to the end of the 500-mile race, postponed on Sunday because of rain.

"It was a very significant learning experience for me," Lester said. "It was fun to be out there with them. This is just the beginning and we have two more [Nextel Cup] races to go.

"I got a late start in my career and I'm trying to catch up as quick as I can."

Chase For The Nextel Cup
(Unofficial after final race)
Rank Driver Behind
1. Jimmie Johnson --
2. Matt Kenseth -56
3. (+1) Denny Hamlin -68
4. (-1) Kevin Harvick -78
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -147
6. Jeff Gordon -219
7. Jeff Burton -247
8. (+1) Kasey Kahne -292
9. (-1) Mark Martin -307
10. Kyle Busch -448

Lester said he hopes he earned some respect from the other Cup drivers.

"I was able to bring it home in one piece and able to build up my database of knowledge," he said. "There were some opportunities for me to take some chances and I could have gotten in the way. But I'm not trying to do that."

Lester, scheduled to drive two more Cup races this year -- at Michigan International Speedway in June and California Speedway in September -- said, "I'm eager. I can't hardly wait until June."

Asked who he was representing on the racetrack, the smile Lester had been wearing since the end of the race disappeared.

"I represented myself," he said. "I'm doing this for myself and for my family.

"I'm glad so many people, especially from the minority community, have taken note of what it is I'm doing, but I drive for Bill Lester. At the end of the day, if it wasn't for my self belief, I wouldn't be here."

The top Cup rookie in 2004, Kahne slumped last year. But he's started this season with four strong performances, including an 11th-place run at Daytona and two fourth-place finishes before earning the second victory of his career.

His first win came last May in Richmond and was the highlight of a difficult sophomore season.

Black racers in Cup Series
Charlie Scott: NASCAR debut in 1956. … Competed in the 1956 beach/road race in Daytona Beach driving for the famed Kiekhaefer Chrysler team. … Was a successful driver in Georgia during the late 1940s and 1950s.
Wendell Scott: Made 495 starts in NASCAR's top series, winning more than $180,000 in his 12-year career. … Was the 1959 Virginia State NASCAR Sportsman Division champion. Also won track championship at Southside Speedway in Richmond, Va., in 1959. … Made debut in NASCAR's top series in 1961. … Won at Jacksonville (Fla.) Speedway Park on Dec. 1, 1963, making him the only African-American driver to win a race in one of NASCAR's national divisions. … Finished his career with 147 top-10s. … Inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1999. … No relation to Charlie Scott.
George Wiltshire: Competed in two NASCAR Cup Series events. … Made debut in 1971 at Islip (N.Y.) Speedway. … Also competed at Pocono International Raceway in 1975. … Raced in the NASCAR Sportsman Division in upstate New York in the 1970s.
Randy Bethea: Competed in one NASCAR Cup Series event -- at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 1975. … Was a popular driver on tracks around the Nashville, Tenn., area in the 1970s. … Competed in the NASCAR Sportsman Division, finishing 16th in points in the state of Tennessee in 1972.
Willy T. Ribbs: Competed in three NASCAR Cup Series events in 1986 for the DiGard team. … Made debut at North Wilkesboro Speedway. … Won several Trans-Am events for Jack Roush in the mid-1980s. … Competed in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2001. Finished 16th in the series standings, winning more than $235,000.
Bill Lester: Made his Nextel Cup debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 20, 2006.
-- Source: NASCAR Media

"We had momentum," said Kahne, who also finished second to Jeff Burton in Saturday's Busch Series race here. "We've had momentum all weekend long.

"Man, to win at Atlanta, one of my favorites racetracks, is so cool."

It was the first victory at Atlanta for a Dodge in 29 years, since Richard Petty won here in 1977. It was also only the fourth win by a Charger since the model was introduced at the start of the 2005 season.

Struggling with a balance problem, only Kahne, his Evernham Motorsports teammate Jeremy Mayfield and Penske Racing South driver Ryan Newman won with Chargers last year. The car has been such a handful that two Dodge teams, Penske and Petty Enterprises, have gone back to the 2004 Intrepids for some races.

Kahne said Monday's victory was significant because he was able to overcome early handling problems with adjustments by his crew during the race.

"Everything that's gone on has been a plus for us," Kahne said. "The Chargers they've built for us at Evernham Motorsports and the engines, everything is running really well. It just took us a little time today to get it right."

Mark Martin made a late run at Kahne, driving his Ford alongside and nosing ahead of Kahne's No. 9 Charger 12 laps from the end of the 325-lap event. But Martin had to back off when his car began to slide and he was not able to challenge the leader again.

Kahne, who led 85 laps, including the final 80, finished 1.929 seconds -- about 20 car lengths -- ahead of Martin.

We just couldn't beat Kasey," Martin said. "He was strong there at the end and really got up on the wheel when I got up with him there at the end. Man, I thought I was going to have a win here."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third, his best finish of the year. He was followed by Jeff Gordon, reigning series champion Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Paul Menard, making only his third Cup start.

Johnson, who won two races and finished second in the other heading into Monday's event, will go to Bristol, Tenn., next weekend holding a 50-point lead over new runner-up Kahne in the standings.

Matt Kenseth, who came into the race in second, was one of several drivers who had tire problems Monday and, after running near the front several times, finished 13th and now trails Johnson by 78 points.

Monday, with fewer than 20,000 of the estimated 80,000 spectators returning after sitting in the rain hoping in vain for the race to start Sunday, the race was run under a blanket of gray clouds with temperatures in the low 50s. But the predicted rain held off.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press