BRISTOL, Tenn. — It’s not how you start but where you finish that’s most important in racing.
Even though Enumclaw’s Kasey Kahne finished fourth in the Sprint Cup Series standings last year after a terrible start to the season, he was in no mood for a repeat performance.
Kahne’s victory in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway ensured that won’t happen but his first two races of the 2013 season left him with some lingering doubts.
Despite a fast car at Daytona, Kahne got caught in a wreck and finished 36th. He was 19th a week later at Phoenix, leaving him 29th in points.
The tide turned last week with a runner-up finish at Las Vegas and Sunday Kahne and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team were able to cash in all their chips.
“It feels really good to win at this place. It’s been such a tough track over the years,” said Kahne, who earned his 15th career win and first at Bristol.
“My first time here in 2002 was just something. I couldn’t believe the way that you drove, as hard as you drove here, the way things happen so quickly.”
Kahne said he believed he had cars capable of winning at both Daytona and Las Vegas and wanted to be able to capitalize on the opportunities to win he’s had early this season.
“We’ve gained a lot of spots here in the last two weeks and feel really good about where we’re at, where our team’s at,” he said.
“There was a lot that went on during the offseason to get a little bit better. I felt like each one of us needed to get a touch better. So far it’s all paying off.”
Kahne is now seventh in the series standings, 42 behind new points leader Brad Keselowski. Kahne has improved 22 spots in the past two weeks.
It took 26 races before Kahne broke into the top 10 in points last year.
“We’ve had a lot of good runs here. We finally finished one off, so we’re proud of that,” said Khane’s crew chief, Kenny Francis.
“I feel like it’s a great start to the year. Hopefully, we can keep building on the momentum we’ve established.”
For much of Sunday’s race, it appeared Joe Gibbs Racing would be celebrating in Victory Lane as its three drivers — Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth — combined to lead 258 of the first 322 laps.
Busch’s run was derailed for a while by a pit road speeding penalty and Matt Kenseth got wrecked while running second when then-leader Jeff Gordon blew a right-front tire and collected him in the accident.
Hamlin ended up bouncing off the walls in the final laps and had to settle for a 23rd place finish and a war of words on Twitter with former teammate Joey Logano after the race.
Jimmie Johnson slapped the wall hard on Lap 455 to bring out the 10th caution of the race. On the restart on Lap 462, Brad Keselowski led the way ahead of Kahne but a bad restart and Kahne almost immediately took the lead that he would not relinquish.
“I got ran over,” Keselowski said of the final restart. “I’d have to look at the replay but it was going to be a hell of a battle between me and Kasey there with four laps to go, but I didn’t get the chance.
“I’m not sure what happened, if (Hamlin) got pushed from behind or if he just ran me over, but that’s racing.”
Kyle Busch, who started from the pole, finished second. Keselowski was third, Kurt Busch was fourth and Clint Bowyer was fifth.
“I just need to stop getting penalties and just stay up front all day,” Busch said after the race. “We’re trying to take too much on pit road and it’s not working for us, so we just need to back off.
“I just never really had the car that was worth being able to run the bottom (groove) as long as it needed to. Then on the top (groove), it was too tight as well.
“But it was a good day, I guess.”