INDIANAPOLIS — After six hours of stop-and-go racing, heart-pounding action at the end of regulation, overtime and a second overtime restart and his body cramping the longer the Brickyard 400 went toward nightfall, Kasey Kahne couldn’t stop smiling.
Winning can have that impact. Especially for a driver who last won 102 races ago at Atlanta in 2014, was eliminated by a crash in five of the eight previous races and faces speculation that he will lose his ride with Hendrick Motorsports after this season even though he has a contract through next year.
But all that didn’t matter after Kahne finally crossed the finish line about 10 minutes before sunset descended on a darkening Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.
He just wanted to celebrate.
First, he had to cross the finish line, ending a race — stopped once by rain and twice by accidents — more than six hours after it started.
“I was actually emotional in the car,’’ Kahne told NBC Sports. “Was just thinking don’t do anything until this car makes it to the finish line because who knows what could happen.’’
He made it but his struggles weren’t over. His body cramped late in the race. Problems started with 10 laps left before the scheduled end when his left calf and leg cramped. After the race restarted, his right leg cramped, then his chest, left ribs and left arm.
The cramping made any type of celebration difficult after the second overtime restart ended in another crash and the end of the race.
“Every time I tried to yell and get excited, my body would cramp,’’ said Kahne, who went to the infield care center for IV fluids.
He felt well enough later that he said he was ready to go racing again that night.
More importantly, Kahne says that’s what he wants to take from this win is to be happy more.
“I love driving the cars,’’ he said. “I love racing. I go and race my sprint car when I have time because I enjoy that stuff. But just be a little more happy in doing it.
“There are a lot of reasons to be happy. After a win like this, hopefully that gets all of us just pointed in the right direction a little bit better, working for each other a little bit more, having faith in each other. I think all those things help.’’
This group needs it. While teammate Jimmie Johnson wins races and championships, Chase Elliott has had strong runs at times and focus on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final full-time Cup season, Kahne can be viewed by some as the other Hendrick driver.
He might not have that title for long. Speculation has been that 19-year-old Xfinity rookie William Byron, who won Saturday’s race at Indy, could move from JR Motorsports to take over the No. 5 car next year. A key could be sponsorship with Great Clips and Farmer’s Bank Insurance both leaving the team after this season.
“Our plans are not set for the 5 car,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said after Sunday’s race. “We’ll see how things shake out, you know, the rest of the year. There’s a lot of things involved, sponsors and a lot of things we look at. We’re going to try hard. But there’s no decisions made at this time.’’
Kahne said: “I have a deal with Hendrick through ’18 and we’re trying to figure out how to make all that stuff work.’’
He’s also focused on what more he and his team can do now that they’ll be one of the 16 playoff teams.
Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. again showed they were the class of the field — leading 95 of the first 111 laps — before they tangled on a restart and wrecked. Pit strategy by crew chief Keith Rodden put Kahne in a spot where he caught a break with a caution flag waving when he was on pit road. After the pit cycle under caution, Kahne moved to the lead.
It marked only the third race he’s led this year. He had led 19 laps this season before leading 12 Sunday. With track position critical at Indianapolis, Kahne took advantage to win.
“I think a win like (this) can give myself confidence and momentum, our whole team a boost, which is something that we need,’’ Kahne said. “We work hard, too. But the guys that are winning and running up front, their momentum, their confidence is tough to keep up with when it’s been a couple years.
“When you’re working as hard as you can every single week, putting in tons of hours, you’re away from your family, all this stuff’s going on, (and) you’re not getting results for two years, at some point, there’s no way me as a driver or my team guys are doing what some of the other teams are doing. I mean, it’s just the way that life is, I think. It’s the way that we work.
“So I would hope that this would give us all confidence and give us momentum and push us to, ‘yeah, we’ve been at the shop, giving 100 percent, but now we really are giving 100 percent.’ Now we’re really excited to go to the next race because we didn’t run 15th or 18th or crash today, we actually won the Brickyard 400.’’