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Menzer: Kahne caps Rockingham's return in style

April 19, 2012, Joe Menzer,

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Kahne caps great weekend in style as Rockingham returns to rave reviews

It was the kind of beautiful, sun-drenched day that left folks wanting for just a little bit more.

Not for Kasey Kahne, perhaps. He had just capped a long weekend of racing that left him on the verge of utter exhaustion. And not because the day -- or the facility that hosted it -- fell short of any realistic or even the most optimistic expectations.

"When they decided to put the race on here at Rockingham, as soon as I heard about it, I was trying to figure out who I could race for and how I would make it here from Texas and all that."


Sunday's return of NASCAR to the Rock, now officially known as Rockingham Speedway and formerly known as North Carolina Speedway and North Carolina Motor Speedway, was a rather spectacular spectacle. No, the place didn't sell out. But it was roughly 80 percent full and the crowd -- estimated between 24,000 and 28,000 depending on who you talked to -- was enthusiastic and obviously receptive from the outset.

Owner Andy Hillenburg was beaming before, during and afterward as appreciative fans and competitors streamed to and eventually from the place he bought at auction for $4.4 million in 2007. They seemed to leave afterward with some reluctance, as if wanting to linger behind and let the moment soak into their bones.

"I might be biased, but I think I should give myself an A-plus," he said of his and the community's joint effort to bring NASCAR back to Rockingham after eight years and 53 days.

It surely will not be so long again before the next NASCAR event is held at the 1.017-mile track that produced three-wide racing galore during Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 200 -- the Camping World Truck Series race won by Kahne.

Kahne's day (and night)

One thing you have to know about Kahne is that when he enters a Truck race, he expects to win. Everyone else should expect him to win, too.

Sunday was only the fifth CWTS event he's ever run, and he's now won four of them. He finished second in the other -- leaving folks to wonder what went wrong in that one.

It didn't even matter that because of his busy travel schedule, he had to start from the rear of the field. Kahne's truck had to be qualified by substitute driver Brad Sweet, who did a fine job and put it fifth on the starting grid -- knowing all along that unless it rained in Texas and Kahne couldn't get to Rockingham, Sweet would be on the sidelines Sunday and the No. 4 Chevrolet would be headed to the back for the start because of the driver change.

Kahne was operating on little sleep Sunday, having run the Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night and the Nationwide Series race at that venue the night before that. He said he arrived at his Rockingham hotel at 3:15 a.m. and set his alarm for 9 a.m., but was so excited to run at the Rock that he woke up about 7:30 and could not get back to sleep.

Among others, he credited truck owner Steve Turner of Turner Motorsports, which fielded his winning truck, with giving him the opportunity to wear himself out -- along with the rest of the Truck field.

"I'm glad I came out here. When they decided to put the race on here at Rockingham, as soon as I heard about it, I was trying to figure out who I could race for and how I would make it here from Texas and all that," Kahne said. "There are a lot of people who put great effort into making it happen. Steve Turner was one of them. It was pretty awesome to be able to do this."

Kahne's victory Sunday capped a remarkably productive weekend in which he also finished third in Friday's Nationwide race and seventh in Saturday night's Cup race. For a driver who had been searching to find his way after switching to Hendrick Motorsports on the Cup side, it was precisely the tonic to soothe any pains lingering from a slow start to his 2012 season.

"It's the best weekend I've had in a long time," Kahne said. "I got out of the truck and thought, 'Man, I've got three clean race cars -- and I ran three pretty hard races this weekend.' Everything's clean. Not a dent on them. Even though I only got about four and half hours sleep, it was plenty."

The last time

Who can blame Kahne for wanting to do whatever it took to get to Rockingham? Prior to Sunday, the last time Kahne had raced there was on Feb. 22, 2004 in the Subway 400 -- the last NASCAR-sanctioned event before the gates closed following a run of four decades in the sport. (It sat dormant for three years before Hillenburg bought it and began running smaller events in lesser series).

Then a rookie making only his second start in the Cup Series, Kahne pulled underneath veteran Matt Kenseth coming of Turn 4 on the final lap and the two raced side by side to the start/finish line. Pit-crew members from both teams were jumping up and down, each team thinking its driver had won -- but it was Kenseth who edged Kahne by one one-hundreth of a second in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history.

"I've raced that race through my head so many times since then, trying to figure out how I could have beaten Matt," said Kahne, who also earned the first Nationwide win of his career at the Rock. "The biggest memory I have of here was racing Matt that day. ... I've watched the video of it and raced it over again in my head many times."

Kahne was one of only two Cup drivers to make the difficult travel trek from Texas for Sunday's race (David Reutimann was the other). But he isn't likely to be the last, as what transpired Sunday surely earned Hillenburg a return date on the Truck schedule for next season and there are other Cuppers who won't want to let Kahne have all the fun.

Denny Hamlin, for instance, tweeted during Sunday's race that he was going to race at the Rock next year if he had to build his own truck. And NASCAR president Mike Helton talked about how the facility was such "an important part of our sport's heritage."

By all accounts, it was good to be back.

"It was exciting, for one, to see that they got the race," Kahne said. "Andy Hillenburg kept this place going. I mean, it's fresh. It looks good. He's done a really good job of taking care of the place, cleaning it up and building it back up so that we're able to run a NASCAR race here. That's pretty awesome just by itself.

"And then once you got racing, it was like the old Rockingham. The tires fall off fast but we weren't blowing them or anything. You have good grip and you just try to keep working on your car and keeping as much grip as you can. I really like the track."

Despite the fact that Kahne was the only driver to make it to Victory Lane, he was far from alone on that account.

"It was so cool. The best part was being able to look up into the grandstands and see how full they were," said Matt Crafton, who drove his No. 88 Toyota to a third-place finish. "The whole community seemed to be behind this. It was so awesome.

"I guarantee you that if you ask race fans who watched [the Cup] race [Saturday] night and then watched our race, they would say this is the way racing ought to be. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun driving a race car or race truck. That was just a blast."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.