Charlotte Update: Kasey Kahne strong early on

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Kasey Kahne and the entire Hendrick Motorsports posse have had a robust first half in tonight’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Pole sitter Jeff Gordon led the first 26 laps of the night and went to pit road as the leader following an early yellow. But a decision to go with four tires caused him to drop back to eighth for the restart, while Kasey Kahne was able to ascend to the front for the Lap 30 restart.

However, Gordon didn’t falter as badly as Kyle Busch, who was forced to make a second stop under the caution because of loose lug nuts on his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He was forced to restart from 35th spot, but quickly began made up ground when the race went back to green.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. quickly took the point from his teammate Kahne, but a piece of trash on the grille triggered a rise in temperatures for Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy. On Lap 44, Kahne re-took the lead, giving Earnhardt a chance to draft him in an attempt to knock the debris off.

But he wasn’t quite able to do the job until he had conceded both second and third to Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson respectively before the Lap 50 mark; Earnhardt finally got rid of the debris after running up toward Johnson’s rear bumper.

Truex’s stop on Lap 69 began a cycle of green flag service for the field, which ended with Kahne getting the lead back, Truex in second, Earnhardt in third, Johnson in fourth and Gordon in fifth.

An engine failure for Mark Martin brought the yellow out again shortly after Lap 80, triggering stops for drivers such as Truex,  Kevin Harvick, Kyle and Kurt Busch, and Brad Keselowski – who was forced to return after he left with the jack still attached to his car.

Earnhardt once again popped ahead of Kahne off the restart at Lap 91. Also taking advantage was Kyle Busch, who had already climbed back up to 14th after his ill-fated first stop but then vaulted an additional eight positions off the restart to sixth.

Kahne, though, would not be shook off by Earnhardt, and on Lap 96, he passed him again for P1. The Hendrick foursome of Kahne, Johnson, Earnhardt and Gordon stayed up front, running 1-2-3-4 up to Lap 126 when Kyle Busch passed Gordon for fourth as the latter was slowing down to get to the pits.

Another round of stops under green flag conditions were beginning at that point, and Kahne would give up the lead to pit on Lap 130 – only to get it back on Lap 135 at the end of the cycle. Kyle Busch rose to second behind Kahne and ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

NHRA: Antron Brown on verge of earning 50th career Top Fuel win this weekend at Phoenix

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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When you’re used to winning championships – like three in the previous five seasons – any other season finish is disappointing.

That’s kind of how NHRA Top Fuel dragster driver Antron Brown looked at his fourth-place showing in the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

“At the end of the day, we had a very competitive season last year and made it to 10 final rounds,” Brown said. “But we got into the Countdown (NHRA’s six-race playoffs) and our timing was off.

“We struggled with a lot of problems we don’t usually have. Now it’s time for a new chapter for this team and time to get better. This is a new beginning for us and it’s going to be fun and exciting and we’re coming after them.”

Antron Brown hugs the NHRA Top Fuel championship trophy after winning it in 2016. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire)

Brown had a good start to 2018, reaching the semifinals before losing to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher in the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“We had a great performance at Pomona and I couldn’t be more proud of what our Matco/Toyota guys did,” Brown said. “Now we are going to Phoenix where we’ve won three times (2009, 2012 and 2014, and was runner-up in 2011) and we’ll just try to hit it hard and get a fourth.”

Next up on the NHRA 24-race national event circuit is the second race of the season, this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix (Chandler, Arizona).

Brown has definite plans to make it four wins in Phoenix. And if he does that Sunday, he’ll set a significant career milestone: it would be his 50th career win driving a Top Fueler and the 66th win overall (he won 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle before shifting from two to four wheels).

In so doing, Brown would become only the fourth Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to hit the 50-win mark. The others are Tony Schumacher (83), Larry Dixon (62) and Joe Amato (52).

This will be the second time Brown has been racing in Phoenix this month. He was part of the preseason test there for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock cars a week before the season began.

“Testing went really well there,” said Brown, leaving him optimistic that he can reach victory circle once again. “I love going back to Phoenix.”

Brown has been the most dominant driver in NHRA Top Fuel competition since 2012, winning more than twice the number of races (34) than the next most successful Top Fuel driver (16 by Schumacher) in that time period.

He also has a 71 percent overall win percentage, which exceeds both eight-time Top Fuel champ Schumacher and 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

“I’m just pumped up, feeling like we’ve got some unfinished business from last year,” Brown said. “We had a good outing but didn’t close the deal, so this year, we’re looking forward to getting back there and getting off to a great start.”

NOTES: Brown will serve as honorary pace car driver for the March 4th Pennzoil 400 NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas. He’ll be joined by teammates Matt Hagan and Leah Pritchett in a weekend full of activities that they’ll all be involved in.

“I’m really excited,” Brown said. “It’s going to be my first experience as a pace car driver, and I’m just super stoked to go out there and drive the Camry pace car for Pennzoil and start those NASCAR boys off the right way. Throttle down, pedal to the metal. I just want them to get off to a great start.”

Brown has won four times at The Strip, the drag strip adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity,” he said. “It’s an honor to be out there with such talented drivers, and I know I’m going to really enjoy watching our NASCAR counterparts.”

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