FORT WORTH - Somewhat lost in the shadow of the championship battle between points leader Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway was Kasey Kahne, who drove his No. 4 Red Bull Toyota to a third-place finish.
Finishing behind only the two Sprint Cup title contenders, Kahne matched the second-best finish of his season. He had a third-place finish at Richmond and was second last month at Kansas.
"It was a good run," Kahne said after the AAA Texas 500. "Track position was a big deal. Even on those long runs, it would get spread out. The guy out front could make up some ground - he could kind of get away. So you needed to be as close to the front as possible.
"Tony raced me as hard as he's ever raced me, and Carl, I was racing him. And I just want to win, so I have to race as hard as I can, and they're trying to get as many points as they can. It's intense trying to win these races right now. It's super close."
Kahne is wrapping up his first and only full season with Red Bull. After leaving Richard Petty Motorsports late last season, Kahne will move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012 and drive the No. 5 Chevrolet.
In addition, Red Bull has said that it does not intend to continue its NASCAR operation after this season, so the team may fold if a new owner can't be found.
"The Red Bull team just keeps doing a good job. They're working hard. It's pretty impressive for a lot of them not knowing their future," Kahne said. "I'm happy each week coming to the track driving for them and working with [crew chief] Kenny Francis."
Year of firsts
Trevor Bayne, who made his Sprint Cup debut with a 17th-place finish in last year's AAA Texas 500, has had quite a ride in the year since.
His second Cup start came in the 2011 season opener, and he put the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford in Daytona 500 victory lane for the first time since 1976.
He returned to Fort Worth in April and matched his 17th-place showing from the fall, at the time still his best non-Daytona Cup finish. He eventually recorded a 16th-place finish at Michigan and, two weeks ago, a 15th-place run at Talladega.
On Friday, Bayne qualified 13th for Sunday's race at TMS, ensuring his 16th Cup start of the season.
Then on Saturday, Bayne pushed Edwards into the lead late in the Nationwide Series race, only to drive past his dominant teammate and earn his first Nationwide victory. While his first Cup win came in his second career start - in the biggest event of the year - his initial Nationwide victory came in his 77th race in that series.
"This year's just been full of ups and downs," Bayne said Sunday morning. "I wouldn't have believed it. … I'm just glad that we're still around."
All of his Cup starts have been for the legendary Wood Brothers, but Bayne drives for Roush Fenway Racing in the Nationwide Series, which led to his Cup opportunity. It's unclear whether he'll return to the No. 21 Ford next year.
"I hope so," Bayne said. "It's just going to be up in the air until we make all of our stuff happen at Roush."
On Sunday, Bayne made it three-for-three, finishing 17th once again in Denton County.
"I don't know if you could script a story like the year I've had," Bayne said Saturday. "It's crazy to think only one year ago I was making my first Cup start, and to come back here to Texas and get our first Nationwide win, this is a place I'm going to love from now on."
'An epic challenge'
Andy Lally, who is making the transition from sports car racing, said he has learned a lot about racing on ovals during a "pretty crazy" rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series.
"It's been the most intense racing season I've ever been involved in," said Lally, who has 24 wins and three championships in 12 seasons in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series. "It's been an epic challenge."
Lally drives the No. 71 Ford for TRG Motorsports. On Sunday he finished 29th, two laps down.
"I think the biggest thing to get used to in this series is the tire," Lally said. "At the same time, a race car is a race car."
Team owner Kevin Buckler has been watching the progress of Lally, whose best finish so far is 19th in the spring race at Talladega.
"As a rookie, a lot of people were questioning whether we should do this," Buckler said. "He's had some great runs - unfortunately, also had some bad luck.
"He's given his heart and soul to this, just like I have."
Small, independent teams like Buckler's constantly struggle to find the funding needed to race.
"It's very hard to be competitive with the big teams," said Joe Nemechek, owner-driver of the No. 87 Toyota. "It's getting harder and harder to keep up."
"Week in and week out, we're fighting an uphill battle," Lally said. "We're trying to play catch-up with our young team."
Without sponsorship money, drivers are rarely guaranteed job security. Travis Kvapil said he'd prefer to return next season in the No. 38 Ford he drives for Front Row Motorsports.
"I don't think they've made up their minds about what direction they're going yet," Kvapil said. "I'd like to stay here."
Kvapil could move to the Nationwide Series or return to the Camping World Truck Series, where he has nine wins and was the 2003 champion.
"You have to explore other options, especially if they're quality rides with good equipment," Kvapil said. "I still feel like I have goals in front of me in the Cup Series I'd like to accomplish."
The situation is the same at TRG.
"I would love to be back here," Lally said. "It's tough times right now trying to find someone interested in a program like this."
"So much depends on the offseason and sponsorship," Buckler said. "But that's what we'd like to do."
MATT CRIDER can be reached at 940-566-6906. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .