CONCORD, N.C. —Tony Stewart suffered his second heartbreaking defeat of the season Sunday night when a flat tire late in the Coca-Cola 600 handed Kasey Kahne the victory in NASCAR’s longest race of the year.
Stewart, who lost the season-opening Daytona 500 when he was passed on the last lap by Ryan Newman, had the tire go flat with three laps to go. He was forced to pit, allowing Kahne to zip past him for the victory.
Stewart has yet to win the 600 in 10 career tries, an agonizing stretch for a former open-wheel driver who grew up dreaming of an Indianapolis 500 victory. With his focus now on NASCAR, he’ll settle for any sort of Memorial Day weekend win.
Instead, he wound up a frustrating 18th and stormed into his hauler without comment. He could be seen inside the truck kicking at the cabinets as crew chief Greg Zipadelli was left to answer questions about yet another near-miss.
“It’s just stupid. I don’t know,” Zipadelli said. “We must have run over something, small leak or something. But I’ll just say we lost a tire with a 5 1/2 -second lead. I don’t even know what to say, I’m so frustrated. I feel bad for everybody.
“All day we did a good job. We knew we needed to keep our car where it was and it would be good at the end and we did exactly that, and we just fell short.”
It was the second consecutive defeat in the 600 for Stewart, who led 55 laps here last May only to fall short on fuel and forfeited the lead for a late gas-and-go.
Meanwhile, it was the second straight week Kahne made his way to Victory Lane.
“There was no chance of catching (Stewart). He was as fast as we were when we pitted,” Kahne said. “I was thinking maybe he’d run out of gas. I guess he had a tire problem.”
Kahne, who led just five laps all season coming into Sunday, became the sixth driver—joining Davey Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Darrell Waltrip—to win both the All-Star race and the 600 in this eight days of racing at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
A week ago, he was voted by the fans to compete in the All-Star race when he failed to earn a spot in the event through on-track performance.
He gambled with a no-tire stop to win the $1 million race, then vowed to carry momentum from the win into the 600.
Car owner Ray Evernham said the team rolled into the 600 on a high from the All-Star race that played a part in Kahne snapping a 52-race winless streak in points events dating to October 2006.
“I can tell you that this team has had a much different step since they won that feature, that race here last week,” Evernham said. “That momentum is something—I don’t how you measure it in professional sports.”
Stewart’s failure was par for the course in this race of attrition. Most of the heavyweights dropped out of contention during an event that started in the late afternoon, ended in the evening and requires both intense mental focus and luck to make it to the finish.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson, Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch all led laps but had parts failures or tire issues that prevented them from winning.
“Dale Jr. fell out, he was awesome. Tony Stewart fell out, he was awesome,” Kahne said. “They had us beat at times tonight, and we had them beat at times tonight.”
Greg Biffle finished second to Kahne for the second straight week and Kyle Busch, the Sprint Cup Series points leader and winner of Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race, finished third despite two battery changes over the course of the race.
Jeff Gordon was fourth and was followed by Earnhardt, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Carl Edwards and David Reutimann.
Kahne led 65 laps, but forfeited the lead to Stewart with 16 laps to go when Kahne had to stop for gas. Stewart stopped for gas later, but had a shorter fill-up that cycled him back into the lead.
Stewart was then cruising toward his first win of the season when he smacked the wall, causing his tire to go flat and forcing him to head to the pits and hand he win to Kahne.
Earnhardt mounted a strong bid to snap his 73-race winless streak, leading 76 laps in the latter portion of the evening. But he appeared to lose his right rear tire while running out front, and his Chevrolet slid into the wall and bounced along it until finally coming to a stop. He had additional damage when J.J. Yeley ran into the back of him, and he sped to pit road for repairs.
NASCAR initially penalized him one lap for speeding past the safety workers, but rescinded it after further review. Stewart, who inherited the lead when Earnhardt wrecked and held it after the ensuing pit stops, was baffled by the non-call.
“Now how does that work?” he called.
No one was quite sure, but Earnhardt rallied to finish fifth.
“I thought we were done, and then I got motivated again,” he said. “We got lucky. Got gas and made it last.”
Johnson, a three-time winner of this race, lost a cylinder in his motor while running second late and failed to finish all 600 miles. He finished 39th.
Kurt Busch led 64 laps early, but hit the wall when he had an issue with his right front tire while running second. He wound up 16th.
Vickers led 61 laps and was running in third right before the halfway point when his left rear wheel broke on his Toyota and the tire bounced across the track as Vickers slammed into the wall. The tire continued its high bounces, over a fence and into the infield, where it ricocheted off the awning of a camper before finally coming to rest amid cheering fans.
Security was sent to recover the tire, but Vickers didn’t need to look at it to figure out what happened.
“The last two runs the car was picking up a left rear vibration,” said Vickers, who finished 42nd. “The left rear wheel was loose, but it was staying intact. We’re not really sure exactly what was causing it, but the last time, we picked up the vibration and the wheel just came off the car.”