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CONCORD, N.C. -- Race-winner Jamie McMurray may be $1 million richer, but a pair of cars that didn't come close to Victory Lane in Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway established themselves as front-runners for next Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at the same track.
Yes, despite the No. 5 Chevrolet and No. 18 Toyota's respective finishes of 14th and 21st, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title contenders Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch can take respite knowing that they have potential race-winning cars sitting back at their shops waiting to be unleashed for 600 miles a short seven days from now -- when points count.
Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers brought a fast Camry to the track this weekend, grabbing a front row starting position during qualifying and quickly passing pole-winner Carl Edwards to lead the first segment of the five-segment race. Things quickly turned for the 18 in segment two after contact with Clint Bowyer ended Busch's day, but it was enough to know he'll have a significant shot to improve upon his 38th-place finish in last year's 600 and finally break through for an elusive Charlotte win.
That said, with that much money on the line, Saturday's result was still a disappointment.
"Hate that we're out this early, but you're trying to race hard and protect that average finish that you're supposed to have for the last segment," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. "Trying to pass as many cars as you can and I was going to have two right there getting into Turn 3. Those are the opportunities you have to take in the All-Star (Race)."
With Busch out of the race, Kahne took over.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver owned the next two segments and looked set to be the one cashing in a seven-figure check before hitting an oil spill and getting into the wall. He wound up finishing the race after extensive work on pit road, but again, the precedent for next week was already set.
"I had the strongest car here," Kahne said. "The Time Warner Cable Chevy was so quick and maneuverable in traffic, I could drive right through the field. We're just building on what we have here. We had a great engine, had a really fast car and another one sitting in the garage over at HMS that'll be ready to go. I feel good about next week and felt great about tonight. We could go at will, so it was nice to be really fast here."
While Saturday had a silver lining to a rough finish for Busch, he's third in the standings, trailing leader Jeff Gordon by just 21 points. Next Sunday isn't as important for him, especially since his ticket to the Chase is already virtually punched with his Fontana win.
But for Kahne, 16th in points with his first top-five finish coming last week -- 11 races into the season -- the All-Star Race was about much more.
The No. 5 team struggled throughout the first quarter of the season, and it knew it. Through the season's first eight races, the team had averaged a finish of 21.25 and wasn't even on the Chase map. Changes were necessary, so Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis tested at Kansas, which seemed to turn on the proverbial light switch.
Kahne has improved his finishing position in each race since, culminating with his top-three last week at Kansas. If Saturday's speed was any indication, things don't seem to be slowing down.
"Four weeks ago we wouldn't have run well at either (Charlotte or Kansas)," Kahne said. "We just didn't have the speed, so we did some testing prior to Richmond. Went to Richmond and were top five in both practices; ran in the top seven throughout the entire race. Ended up in the back because of other things on pit road, not because of the car at all."
And "the back" that Kahne is referring to? A respectable -- compared to how he'd been doing -- 14th-place finish.
With a trio of Coca-Cola 600 trophies already sitting at home, the most recent of which came just two years ago, Kahne appears primed to add a fourth to his collection.
Even if he doesn't become the season's 10th winner next Sunday, the team is making the strides it needs to in order to get back on track and establish itself among the elite in the Sprint Cup Series and ensure that a quarter of the Chase field belongs to Hendrick Motorsports, the way it has the past two years.
"We just made gains as a team on some things I needed to feel better in the car and we found those things and it's helped a lot. The pit crew stepped up and everybody stepped up all at the same time. It's a little bit of everything but the car is definitely driving faster; driving better than what it was a month ago."
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