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Archive for Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Lester finishes what he starts in Atlanta

First black driver to compete in 20 years overshadows Kahne’s first win since May at Richmond

March 21, 2006

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— Bill Lester was proud of his accomplishment, though a little embarrassed by all the attention.

"I'm looking forward to when it's about racing instead of race," he said.

Lester became the first black driver to compete in NASCAR's top series since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986, finishing six laps off the pace in 38th place Monday at the Golden Corral 500, won by Kasey Kahne.

The 45-year-old Lester, a regular in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series since 2002, accomplished one of his stated goals, avoiding a crash and racing to the end of the 500-mile race, postponed Sunday because of rain.

"It was a very significant learning experience for me," Lester said. "It was fun to be out there with them. This is just the beginning, and we have two more (races) to go."

Lester, scheduled to drive two more Cup races this year - at Michigan International Speedway in June and California Speedway in September - said, "I'm eager. I can't hardly wait until June."

The top Cup rookie in 2004, Kahne slumped last year. But he has started this season with four strong performances, including an 11th-place run at Daytona and two fourth-place finishes before earning the second victory of his career.

His first victory came last May in Richmond and was the highlight of a difficult sophomore season.

"We had momentum," said Kahne, who also finished second to Jeff Burton in Saturday's Busch Series race here. "We've had momentum all weekend long.

"Man, to win at Atlanta, one of my favorites racetracks, is so cool."

It was the first victory at Atlanta for a Dodge in 29 years, since Richard Petty won here in 1977. It was also only the fourth win by a Charger since the model was introduced at the start of the 2005 season.

Struggling with a balance problem, only Kahne, his Evernham Motorsports teammate Jeremy Mayfield and Penske Racing South driver Ryan Newman won with Chargers last year. The car has been such a handful that two Dodge teams, Penske and Petty Enterprises, have gone back to the 2004 Intrepids for some races.

Kahne said Monday's victory was significant because he was able to overcome early handling problems with adjustments by his crew during the race.

"Everything that's gone on has been a plus for us," Kahne said. "The Chargers they've built for us at Evernham Motorsports and the engines, everything is running really well. It just took us a little time today to get it right."

Mark Martin made a late run at Kahne, driving his Ford alongside and nosing ahead of Kahne's No. 9 Charger 12 laps from the end of the 325-lap event. But Martin had to back off when his car began to slide, and he was not able to challenge the leader again.

Kahne, who led 85 laps, including the final 80, finished 1.929 seconds - about 20 car lengths - ahead of Martin.

"We just couldn't beat Kasey," Martin said. "He was strong there at the end and really got up on the wheel when I got up with him there at the end. Man, I thought I was going to have a win here."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third, his best finish of the year. He was followed by Jeff Gordon, reigning series champion Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Paul Menard, making only his third Cup start.

Johnson, who won two races and finished second in the other heading into Monday's event, will go to Bristol, Tenn., next weekend holding a 50-point lead over new runner-up Kahne in the standings.

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