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Kahne wins at Loudon, teammates finish in top seven

Kahne wins at Loudon, teammates finish in top seven

LOUDON, N.H. – Kasey Kahne seized the lead late in the NASCAR Sprint Cup event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and quietly paced the field on his way to his second victory of the 2012 season.

Despite rain looming on the radar and a hard-charging pack in his rear-view mirror, Kahne steadily ran to his first Cup victory at the 1.058-mile racetrack. With the win, Kahne now puts himself in prime position for a wild card berth in the upcoming Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Kahne, currently ranked 12th in the standings, needs the spot to contend for the 2012 championship.

“We had a great Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, and we had to battle hard throughout the race,” said Kahne, who led the final 66 laps. “We had good pit strategy. (Crew chief) Kenny Francis, (engineer) Keith Rodden and the guys did a great job. We ran in the top five the whole race.

“I feel like we’ve been pretty tough all year,” Kahne added. “We just haven’t finished them off a lot of times, but we’ve been there all year long. From here on out, we need to stay after it. (Winning) doesn’t get us in the Chase yet, but it definitely helps.”

Kahne was joined inside the top 10 on Sunday by his teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fourth, Jeff Gordon in sixth and Jimmie Johnson in seventh. Hendrick Motorsports has won five of the last 10 races and leads all teams in victories this season.

This marked the third time in which every competing Hendrick Motorsports driver has finished inside the top 10 at Loudon. The first time happened in 1995 when Gordon picked up his first of three career victories at the 1.058-mile track. Terry Labonte followed in fourth and Kenny Schrader in 10th. In 2007, Gordon again led his teammates; this time he scored second, while Kyle Busch took fourth, Johnson finished sixth and Casey Mears eighth.

Qualifying wasn’t as critical for the 1995 and 2007 results, but for Sunday’s race it proved to be beneficial – at least at first -- for the current Hendrick Motorsports crop. When the green flag dropped for the 301-lap affair, all four teammates rolled off the starting grid inside the top 10. Kahne was second, Johnson in seventh, Gordon in eighth and Earnhardt in ninth.

Within five laps, Gordon climbed one position into seventh, but reported that the track was like ice and his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet was encountering difficulty running in Turns 1 and 2. Kahne held steady inside the top three, and Johnson improved two spots to run fifth, surprising crew chief Chad Knaus by saying he was happy with the handling of his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet.

“First time in 10 years you’ve told me that your car is good in the corners here,” Knaus replied over the radio.

Earnhardt, quiet on his radio, patiently guided his No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, around New Hampshire’s 1.058-mile racetrack. No. 88 spotter TJ Majors told Earnhardt the line that Kahne was running, and Earnhardt used that knowledge to improve to seventh within the first 30 laps.

Green-flag pit stops began roughly 75 laps into Sunday’s 301-mile event, and three of the teammates reported handling issues to their crew chiefs. Gordon led one lap before hitting pit road. He told crew chief Alan Gustafson that his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet wasn’t bad in clean air, but was struggling in the turns. Earnhardt and Kahne offered similar commentary, while Johnson reported he was still happy with his No. 48 Chevy.

Only 15 laps later, the first caution flag was waved for debris, and the No. 24 team gambled on pit strategy. Gordon told Gustafson that he didn’t think new tires were that critical, so Gustafson instructed Gordon to stay out on the track. Earnhardt, Kahne and Johnson all stopped for two tires and fuel. Johnson took another opportunity -- his second of the day -- to lead one lap around Loudon before making his pit stop.

Gordon, declared the leader by not pitting, chose the outside line for the restart. He battled for first at Lap 98, with his teammates running inside the top five – Kahne in third, Johnson fourth and Earnhardt fifth. Gordon remained second, while spotter Eddie D’Hondt offered consistent updates on what lines the field was running. But Johnson, running past Kahne, took advantage of a loose-handling No. 24 Chevrolet to pass Gordon on Lap 101.

Rain cropped up on the radar as the Hendrick Motorsports teammates maintained their presence inside the top five. On Lap 145, Gordon made a scheduled green-flag pit stop for fuel and ties. The No. 24 team temporarily went one lap down until the rest of the field followed suit and pitted 11 laps later. Johnson and Earnhardt hit pit road on Lap 156, both for four tires and fuel. Crew chief Steve Letarte told the driver of the No. 88 Chevy that he would be good to go on fuel with one more stop.

Kahne drove into second as green-flag stops began and was running within three seconds of the leader when the yellow flag was waved on Lap 191 for debris.

After quick pit stops, the field reset for the Lap 197 restart. Johnson lined up on the second row next to Kahne, while Earnhardt restarted sixth. Gordon lined up 10th after taking four tires instead of two during the previous stop. Johnson was battling Busch for second within seven laps, with Kahne and Earnhardt hot on his tail.

On Lap 232, Johnson pitted just three laps ahead of schedule for tires and fuel. Knaus made an adjustment to help with the car’s handling entering and exiting the turns, and the driver of the No. 48 Chevy returned running one lap down. Johnson got the free pass three laps later when the yellow flag was waved for oil on the track.

Johnson stayed out on the track, while Kahne, Earnhardt and Gordon stopped for tires, fuel and adjustments. Kahne was the first driver to leave pit road, followed by Earnhardt in second and Gordon in sixth.

Kahne and Earnhardt lined up on the front row for the Lap 240 restart, and when the green flag dropped, the driver of the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet immediately took control of the field. Kahne kept the lead, and by Lap 245, Earnhardt was third, Gordon in ninth and Johnson in 18th.

Kahne continued his lead, while Johnson climbed six spots to run 12th by 260. He moved into ninth with 25 laps left in the race.

With eight laps left on the board, Kahne held a two-second lead over No. 2 Denny Hamlin. Crew chief Kenny Francis encouraged Kahne to maintain his line and not overdrive the corner. Kahne obliged and held on to take the victory.