Like Daytona and Indianapolis, it’s one of those iconic places where race car drivers dream of winning at.
That dream came true for Kasey Kahne in March when he led 109 laps to win the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“This is a big race for me. I just feel like when you’re racing in the Sprint Cup Series, Bristol’s one of those tracks that as a driver you really feel like you need to win at, you want to win at,” Kahne said. “There’s so many things that are thrown at you when you come to this place.”
It was Kahne’s first win in 19 tries at the high-banked short track. He will try for a second straight win in this Saturday’s IRWIN Tools Night Race. After a variety of BMS finishes from a runner-up in 2007 to a 37th-place in the same race the year before, he fully appreciated pulling into victory lane at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.”
“We’ve been trying a long time. So to pull it off, I felt like it was a big accomplishment for our guys and myself,” Kahne said. “We’ve been fast here other times and just not been able to finish the deal. It’s a big confidence builder. It feels really good to win at Bristol Motor Speedway.”
Despite a background in USAC open-wheel cars, the 33-year-old driver remembered coming to the track as a Nationwide Series rookie in 2002 and being surprised by how hard the racing was and how quickly things happened.
It made it that much sweeter when Kahne held off Brad Keselowski and later Kyle Busch to win the March race. According to Kahne, there was no mystery why he was able to stay in front. His No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was fast all weekend, and felt even better on race day.
“I think our car was just that good,” he said. “I felt like we just had a really good car. I just needed to get to the front, get some clean air, try to get away from the guys.
“Once I got to 10 laps to go, I could see where Kyle was and Brad (was), see the lapped cars I was catching, just trying to keep that gap for the final 10 laps. I think it was just the car. It was fast. I was able to get away and kind of control the race from there.”
Kahne had another dominant car at Pocono earlier this month where he overtook teammate Jeff Gordon with less than two laps to go. It was his second win of the season and the 16th of his career.
It also put him in prime position for a wild-card entry into the Chase, provided that he actually needs it. He currently ranks 11th in the points.
“I feel really good about making the Chase,” Kahne said. “I feel good about getting into the top 10 (in points) and racing our way in. I think we’ve been fast and good at all the tracks that we have left on the schedule this season. I’m excited about it. I think we’re in a good spot.”
At this point, he’s totally focused on racing for a NASCAR championship. In previous seasons, he moonlighted in the open-wheel cars he grew up with. That subject recently came to light when three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart suffered a season-ending injury in a sprint car race.
Kahne insists he will try to tame the open-wheel machines again, just that stock cars and his bid for a first series title are now requiring so much attention.
“It’s been good, exciting to be part of that,” he said. “When I feel like racing a sprint car again, I will. Right now I’ve been focused on trying to do the best I can in the Sprint Cup car. It doesn’t really change myself wanting to race, any of that. It’s exactly the same as it was before he got in that wreck.”
Much like teammate Jimmie Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup champion, Kahne has put extra emphasis on working out, especially his cardio training to be in shape to make a run for the championship.
He believes the time spent on the road is well worth it and pays off in the long run, especially at a track like Bristol where drivers face 500 grueling laps and later as drivers grind out those final few races.
“The nice thing about running is you can do it anywhere,” Kahne said. “I”m able to get out there, get a good sweat in, get some miles each day. I feel good about that.
“I remember the first couple years I was in the Cup Series, by the time we got to the end of the year, I was so happy for the season to be over. The last two years, I’ve been wishing it went a couple more races. A lot of that has to do with running, the physical work that I put in each year.”