“This is one of those tracks that, as a driver, you feel like you really need to win at,” said Kahne, who snagged the lead on a final restart with 40 laps left and held off both Kyle Busch and Keselowski in Sunday’s Food City 500.
“We’ve been trying for a long time. To pull it off, I feel is a big accomplishment for our guys and myself. There are so many things that are thrown at you when you come to this place. We’d been fast here other times and not able to finish the deal.”
Kahne, now seventh in the points standings, had finished no better than fifth in any of his previous 10 Cup races at Bristol.
The final restart came after Kahne’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson blew a tire, bringing out the race’s 10th caution.
Prior to the final green-flag run, Kahne and Keselowski had staged a furious short-track duel that rekindled memories of the door-to-door racing that made Bristol famous.
“I’m (thinking) how can I get by and he’s (thinking) how can I hold this guy off,” Kahne said. “I reeled him in, but he was driving into the corners so hard, I really couldn’t do anything on the bottom. I bumped him a few times. He was sideways a few times trying to hold us back.
“I felt like we got a really good restart, got the lead and, from there, it was just momentum and trying to drive away.”
Keselowski knew he was in trouble after spinning wheels on the final restart and watching Kahne set sail.
“I don’t think I had anything for Kasey. I don’t know if anyone did,” said Keselowski, the defending race champion who finished third. “He was so good through the middle, really everywhere. He was kind of in a league of his own.”
Kahne credited his team, led by crew chief Kenny Francis.
“It’s fun to come to pit road and break even or gain spots,” he said. “The guys have just been nailing it on pit road.”
Not everyone made up ground in the pits.
Busch, who won the pole in track record time on Friday, posted the fastest laps in both of Saturday’s practice sessions and then won Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series event, led the first 55 laps before a pit-road speeding violation under caution shuffled him back to 32nd. He was undaunted in his recovery, clawing his way back to 16th in the next 40 laps and moving to second behind teammate Denny Hamlin on Lap 155 after the race’s fourth caution.
“We battled back. I wish I could have kept up with the 5 (Kahne), but he took off and left us all,” Busch said.
Hamlin led 117 of the first 189 laps before surrendering the lead in the pits to teammate Matt Kenseth, who suffered his own misfortune when race leader Jeff Gordon blew a right front tire on Lap 391. Gordon climbed the track with his tire going down and Kenseth had nowhere to go, slamming into the rear of Gordon.
“Not a lot either one of us could do about that,” said Kenseth, resigned to a 35th-place finish.
Joey Logano, who started 10th, had been making steady progress and was challenging Gordon for the lead on Lap 348 when he tangled with Hamlin, his former JGR teammate. That led to a post-race exchange between Logano, Hamlin and team members.
Asked if he and Hamlin had a problem, Logano replied: “If we didn’t, we do now.”
Keselowski’s third-place finish vaulted him to the lead in the Sprint Cup point standings, nine points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished sixth after qualifying 32nd.
Johnson, who entered as the points leader, finished 22nd after running in the top 10 most of the day and fell to third in the standings. Kurt Busch finished fourth, his best showing for Furniture Row Racing, and Clint Bowyer was fifth.