HAMPTON, Ga. -- 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 on
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 [Nextel Cup] races to go.
"I got a late start in my career and I'm trying to catch up as
quick as I can."
Lester said he hopes he earned some respect from the other Cup
"I was able to bring it home in one piece and able to build up
my database of knowledge," he said. "There were some
opportunities for me to take some chances and I could have gotten
in the way. But I'm not trying to do that."
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."
Asked who he was representing on the racetrack, the smile Lester
had been wearing since the end of the race disappeared.
"I represented myself," he said. "I'm doing this for myself
and for my family.
"I'm glad so many people, especially from the minority
community, have taken note of what it is I'm doing, but I drive for
Bill Lester. At the end of the day, if it wasn't for my self
belief, I wouldn't be here."
The top Cup rookie in 2004, Kahne slumped last year. But he's
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 win 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
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
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
Matt Kenseth, who came into the race in second, was one of
several drivers who had tire problems Monday and, after running
near the front several times, finished 13th and now trails Johnson
by 78 points.
Monday, with fewer than 20,000 of the estimated 80,000
spectators returning after sitting in the rain hoping in vain for
the race to start Sunday, the race was run under a blanket of gray
clouds with temperatures in the low 50s. But the predicted rain