On a night of blistering speed at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kasey Kahne set the most torrid pace of all.
With a strong finishing kick in the Coca-Cola 600, Kahne breezed to a 4.295-second victory over Denny Hamlin on Sunday night. The 600-mile race was completed in 3 hours, 51 minutes and 17 seconds — a record for the longest event on the Sprint Cup schedule. The previous mark was 3 hours, 56 minutes, 55 seconds in 1995.
In comparison to the Indianapolis 500 run earlier in the day, it took stock cars going roughly 180 mph only 53 minutes longer than Indy cars needed to finish 500 miles at 215 mph.
Kyle Busch finished third, followed by Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10.
In his 300th start in NASCAR's premier series, Kahne recorded his first win since joining Hendrick Motorsports before the season. He struggled at the outset with new team owner Rick Hendrick, posting a best finish of 14th in his first six starts with the NASCAR powerhouse.
He since has posted six consecutive top-10 finishes, and his 13th career victory stamps him as a contender to earn a wild-card bid for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"We're gaining. We're making big strides," said Kahne, 15th in the standings. "I have the greatest teammates to work with, which is something that I've really looked forward to coming to Hendrick Motorsports."
Kahne led 65 of the final 68 laps in his No. 5 Chevrolet after passing Hamlin for first on a lap 326 restart, giving up the lead on a green-flag cycle.
"I was driving with my eyes out and my hair on fire for 20 laps on that restart trying to catch (Kahne)," Hamlin said. "He just had a superior car."
A Hendrick car won for the third consecutive week as Kahne followed the Southern 500 and Sprint All-Star Race wins by Jimmie Johnson.
It was Kahne's fourth victory at the 1.5-mile oval and his third in the Coke 600.
"Denny was catching me. I saw him coming," Kahne said. "But I wasn't too worried. Because if you could take off really good, you'd get tighter as the night went. I thought about 15 laps (after pit stops), we'd be running the same times. And about 30 laps in, I'd be running two- to three-tenths faster than him."
Johnson entered the 600 as the favorite, but the five-time series champion was burned by a miscue on a pit stop with just under 50 laps to go. Johnson left his pit stall with a fuel can still in his No. 48 Chevrolet, and he returned to serve a stop-and-go penalty under green. He fell off the lead lap and wound up 11th.
"We had a couple mistakes on pit road tonight," Johnson said. "It happens."
Biffle's fourth-place finish was enough to up his series points lead to 10 over Kenseth, 16 over Hamlin and 18 over Earnhardt. Johnson is fifth in the standings, 48 back.
Biffle led a race-high 204 of 400 laps.
"Kasey got good as the night fell," Biffle said. "And we seemed to struggle a bit."
In another race emblematic of the 2012 season, the event was largely devoid of the multicar pileups that often have marred the longest event on the Cup schedule. There were five cautions, but four were for debris and one was for a single-car crash in Turn 4.
In her third start in NASCAR's premier series, Danica Patrick endured a long night, finishing five laps down in 30th.
After starting 40th, she struggled from the green flag, radioing her team that she thought her No. 10 Chevrolet was experiencing brake trouble.
After 80 laps, she had improved four spots but had fallen two laps off the pace.
"I don't see any big deal about trying some (stuff) out here," Patrick said. "I'm pretty far off, so I don't think it matters."
As usual, the 600-mile event was a race of attrition, as the longest race on the schedule took its toll on equipment.
Among the most unfortunate victims was Marcos Ambrose, who qualified second and snatched the lead from Richard Petty Motorsports teammate and pole-sitter Aric Almirola on the first lap.
Ambrose led 20 laps and was running in the top 10 when his No. 9 Ford developed a front-end wobble. He went to the garage on lap 220 to repair a broken hub, returned to the race more than 30 laps down and finished 32nd.
A.J. Allmendinger continued to endure a star-crossed season. The Penske Racing driver entered with high hopes after a strong second in last week's Sprint All-Star Showdown, but his No. 22 Dodge was plagued by problems with its brakes and front end. Early repairs relegated his car to a 33rd-place finish.
Other contenders were plagued by poor pit stops as several green-flag cycles put the heat on crews to perform under pressure. During one midrace sequence, Matt Kenseth (10th), Juan Pablo Montoya (20th) and Jamie McMurray (21st) each had to pit a second time to fix loose wheels.
Tony Stewart, who hasn't won the 600-mile race at Charlotte during his 14 seasons in Sprint Cup, also ran into problems in the pits, colliding with Keselowski's No. 2 Dodge while entering for a stop. The three-time champion made a nifty recovery, whipping his No. 14 Chevrolet around and completing a sideways burnout into his stall for service. But the long stop cost him a lap under green and he finished 25th.