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Kahne rides goodwill fan vote to much-needed -- and valuable -- victory

Kasey Kahne took the Bud Dodge to Victory Lane for the first time. AP Photo/Gerry Broome

CONCORD, N.C. -- Kyle Busch felt like he gave one away Saturday night, and Carl Edwards was already stewing on how he would spend the winner's $1 million purse. Greg Biffle was poised for a Sunday stroll to Victory Lane.

But when the checkers flew over the Sprint All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway, the guy who had planned to watch the race from his couch with a few cold beers was standing in the winner's circle, drenched in a few dozen cold beers.

See, Kasey Kahne wouldn't even have been in the main event were it not for an online fan vote, one that propels the highest vote-getter with a still-drivable car in the qualifying Showdown into the big-money game. But there he was, starting shotgun on the 24-car field.

By the end of the first 25-lap segment he'd driven to 13th position. By Lap 50 he was eighth. At the end of the third segment he was seventh.

And on the final pit stop with 25 laps remaining, crew chief Kenny Francis opted for fuel only, giving Kahne crucial track position that ultimately resulted in victory, making Kahne the third driver in the event's 24-year history to win after transitioning from the qualifying race, the first to do it via the fan vote.

"We got voted in by the fans, which is really special," Kahne said. "The fans got us into this race. I'm very thankful for that. To get voted in by them and to be that strong, to basically pass every car, feels good. Once we got it in there, we were the best car. Yeah [Busch] was good and [Edwards], but I could go basically as fast as I wanted once I got out front."

Had Busch not experienced a motor failure midway through the second segment, he is certain victory was his.

"Oh yeah, definitely, we gave it away for sure," Busch said. "Edwards was fast, but out front in clean air, I don't think he could have come back and caught up to us."

The engine issue -- a rocker arm failure -- also plagued Busch at the Sprint Cup Series test session at Lowe's Motor Speedway. The engine package utilized by the No. 18 team Saturday night was to be used next weekend in the Coca-Cola 600 as well, Busch said.

"We had a problem with it when we were here [earlier this month] testing, but we put over 800 miles on these things and the team felt pretty safe about it," Busch said. "What a fast race car that thing was. It was definitely pretty good."

That's where the frustration lies for Busch, who has been dominant at times during the 2008 season.

"If we were running second or third to somebody who was dominating like us or running like us then that wouldn't have hurt as bad," Busch said of the motor failure. "It's unfortunate for all of us. The guys on this team wanted to win just as bad and we missed out tonight. It wasn't our night. Hopefully, we'll be able to come back for the 600."

After Busch's troubles, Edwards won the second segment. It was his night. Right?

"I was thinking to myself, 'What am I going to do with the money?'" Edwards said with a laugh after the race.

Edwards' teammate, Biffle, then won the third segment … and, like Edwards and Busch, felt like victory was his.

"At the end, I thought it was going to be just easy," Biffle said. "I thought it was going to be a Saturday-night drive. Just went down into Turn 1 after the restart and the tires were way, way too tight. I had one opportunity. [Kahne] kind of closed the door on me a little bit. I figured no sense pressing it [then]. Then it just got tighter and tighter. I never got a chance to get back at him again."

Just 24 hours prior to his victory march, Kahne was critical of his team, saying they were nowhere close to winning. He admitted that may have been a bit critical. It was from a frustrated driver who won six races in 2006 and had gone 0-fer since.

"I guess it wasn't as far off as I thought," he said, then laughed. "As a driver I was down. I was frustrated. I was upset after practice [Friday]. This gives me a ton of confidence, both for the Nationwide race next week and the Cup race. As far as coming out and winning the 600, we have some work to do."

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.