Finally, the pressure is off for one of the sport's tenacious veteran racers.

At long last, the driver with the most expectations to succeed with one of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing's top teams lived up to his potential.

Battling the changing weather conditions and the criticism by press and fans all season long, Kasey Kahne piloted his No. 5 Quaker State Chevrolet Impala en route to the hallowed grounds of Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway, winning Sunday night's prestigious Coca-Cola 600.

Kahne's triumph in the longest NASCAR race was his third in his nine-year Cup career, but most notably, it was his first under the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy banner.

On the heels of a private function honoring his car owner Rick Hendrick's 200 Cup victories, Kahne was challenged by his boss to win the Memorial Day Sunday classic.

The result? Instant success.

"I never really doubted myself,'' Kahne said per AP Sports Writer Steve Reed's article. ''I was upset at some of the things that may have happened. I made a huge mistake at Phoenix, hit the wall there. But other than that, we were solid, we were fast."

Witness: the 32-year-old Enumclaw, WA native placed seventh at Texas, eighth at Kansas, fourth at Talladega, and eighth at Darlington.

Consistent finishes towards the front of the field only meant that it was a matter of time before the aggressive but polished former open-wheel talent would find his way back in the winner's circle.

''I just know that the cars and the people we have that Mr. Hendrick gives us is everything that we need to win,'' Kahne said.

Perhaps not the fastest and most dominant car of the evening, he shadowed the top-three virtually all evening long, chasing down the likes of teammate Jimmie Johnson, the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, and Roush-Fenway Racing force Greg Biffle, who led a race-high 204 laps.

Biffle's car was the class of the field during the first half of the race, pacing the field when the 1.5-mile quad-oval speedway was doused in sunshine.

However, once dusk transitioned into evening, the No. 16 Ford wasn't quite the same dominant car, fading from the lead back to the fourth spot.

Hamlin and Busch took home podium finishes, while Brad Keselowski brought his No. 2 Miller Lite/NASCAR Unites Dodge Charger to a fifth-place result.  

Keselowski's evening wasn't totally action-free, as a pit road skirmish with three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart crinkled the Rochester Hills, MI native's right front fender.  

Ultimately, he still managed a solid performance, while Stewart wound up 25th, three laps off the pace.

Although Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s winless streak continues another race, his sixth-place finish was another solid effort for the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mt. Dew Chevy team.

Earnhardt's teammate Jeff Gordon finally snapped out of a five-race slump in which he placed 20th or worse, taking home his No. 24 Chase/AARP Drive to End Hunger Chevy to a strong seventh place finish.

Defending Coca-Cola 600 winner Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top-10.

Costing himself a shot at a top-10 finish and perhaps a victory at Charlotte was Jimmie Johnson, who relegated himself to an 11th place showing.  Johnson drove away from his pit stall with his gasman and the fuel container, which is an illegal procedure in NASCAR racing. 

As a result, Johnson was penalized and forced into a "stop-and-go" pit stop that took him off the lead lap and out of contention.

Sunday night's race was primarily clean, with the field behaving themselves relatively by keeping their cars off the wall and focusing more on getting to the final 100 miles.

Danica Patrick, who's been something of a Memorial Day weekend media darling for the past seven years, finished a respectable 30th in her No. 10 Chevy, five laps off the pace.  

Even with wall contact late in the going, Patrick mostly stayed out of the leaders' way, opting to try different lines and learning the nuances of her Cup machine.

Landon Cassill was perhaps the biggest surprise of the night, as he drove his No. 83 Burger King Toyota Camry home to a fine 18th-place finish.

Next Sunday, the Sprint Cup tour hits up the "White Lightning" high bank oval otherwise known as Dover International Raceway.  

"The Monster Mile" was the site of Matt Kenseth's convincing win last year in what could've served as a foreshadowing of the Cambridge, WI native's incredible 2012 campaign.

Besides Sunday's FedEx 400 presented by Autism Speaks being the final FOX Sports race of the year, it'll be the final event that Dr. Dick Berggren will cover full-time on a TV telecast.  The Massachusetts native will focus more locally with racing projects in New England following the 400-miler.

Here's a look at the current projected Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship standings, including the two wild card seeds heading into Dover:

  1. Greg Biffle (Roush-Fenway/Ford/1 win)
  2. Matt Kenseth (Roush-Fenway/Ford/1 win)
  3. Denny Hamlin (Gibbs/Toyota/2 wins)
  4. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Hendrick/Chevy)
  5. Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick/Chevy/1 win)
  6. Martin Truex Jr. (Waltrip/Toyota)
  7. Kevin Harvick (Childress/Chevy)
  8. Kyle Busch (Gibbs/Toyota/1 win)
  9. Tony Stewart (Stewart-Haas/Chevy/2 wins)
  10. Carl Edwards (Roush-Fenway/Ford)
  11. Brad Keselowski (Penske/Dodge/2 wins)
  12. Ryan Newman (Stewart-Haas/Chevy/1 win)