It had taken an age for Rick Hendrick's drivers to get that landmark 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win two weeks ago at Darlington, but then Jimmie Johnson followed up that win with a $1 million victory in last weekend's All Star Race, and the team's new boy Kasey Kahne has carried forward the momentum with a follow-up Cup victory this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Nor was it just any race win, but one of the most prestigious of the Cup calendar - and certainly the longest event. Richard Petty Motorsport duo Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose had set themselves up for the race perfectly with a front row lockout, starting under the setting sun just before 6.30pm on Sunday evening.

Almirola and Ambrose traded the lead between themselves over the opening laps, with Greg Biffle breaking through the RPM stranglehold for the first time on lap 9 despite struggling with skyrocketing water temperatures because of some debris lodged in his air intake. Once that was taken care of, Biffle started to fly: taking the lead again on lap 23, no one could shift him from the front for the next 90 laps which included two green flag pit stops.

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Marcos Ambrose had played second fiddle to Biffle for the vast majority of those laps, and had his own chance to lead after pit stops under a debris yellow on lap 111. Kyle Busch quickly moved past him to the front, but Biffle put them both in their place by taking his crown back a couple of laps later.

Jeff Gordon stayed out under the next debris caution to lead on lap 136, but Kyle Busch was feeling in the mood to have a longer go up front and duly moved into the lead for the next 51 laps save for one during a cycle of pit stops that saw David Ragan briefly pop to the top.

But that was quite enough of a rest for Biffle, and he was back in front from lap 191 despite already having led more laps in this one race so far than in the entirety of the 2011 season. Kasey Kahne led for the first time on lap 220 during the next round of pit stops, but then it was back to the Biffle Show for another extended run in the lead.

By now the sun had gone and the floodlights were on. That meant that the track was rapidly cooling, and the teams were having to chase the changing conditions. Biffle's car slowly turned from looking uncatchable to looking merely strong, and then ... Not quite so good.

Kasey Kahne was on hand to pounce at the opportunity when it presented itself, and he took charge of the race properly on lap 280, shortly after Biffle had needed to save the car from a dangerous wobble getting loose off turn 2. BY the time the race hit lap 300, Kahne was leading a top ten consisting of Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards.

Keselowski had earlier had pit lane contact with Tony Stewart, pulling out of his pit stall just as Stewart was coming into his just in front. Keselowski was worrying about the reigning champion rolling up his sleeves and dispensing some street justice in retribution, as he's been known to do in the past and voicing his concern about "getting stuffed in the fence" by the #14. Keselowski's pit crew made representations to Stewart's crew chief Steve Addington, and ultimately both drivers seemed to come to an amicable sharing of the responsibility for the mishap, and a knife fight was averted for the night.

Greg Biffle had the chance to lead again after the next round of pit stops, when he dived under Denny Hamlin for the lead on lap 308 and narrowly avoided coming a cropper with Jamie McMurray in the process. Kahne followed through to give chase to Biffle, and neither man seemed to have the complete upper hand at this point which led to some of the best racing for the lead of the night. There was a debris caution shortly after that, during which Denny Hamlin regained the lead by opting to stay out along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. while most everyone else headed to pit lane. Would the gambit pay off for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver?

When the race restarted for what proved to be an uninterrupted 75-lap run to the chequered, Hamlin was in front but almost immediately under pressure from Kahne who flew off the line from outside the top six to charge down Hamlin for the lead over the course of the next six laps, finally taking to the high side through turn 2 to capture the lead on lap 332.

There was still one more round of pit stops to carry out, with Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle in on lap 353 and Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin in next time around - which meant that Hamlin's risky strategy of staying out last time had paid off nicely for him.

It was less in the way of good news for Jimmie Johnson, however: he left his pit stall with the gas can still attached, meaning a return to pit land and a penalty dropping him off the lead lap in 13th place as a result.

"We just had a couple of mistakes, and that last one really cost us," admitted Johnson. "Late in the race, you just can't recover from something like that."

"I didn't see what happened on that stop, I just heard that they had a miscue with the fuel can or something like that," said Kahne's crew chief Kenny Francis. "The fuel cans that we use now are kind of touchy, kind of tricky. They fit real precisely. I'm sure it was something where they were trying to make sure the car was full, the jack dropped and the fuel guy was still trying to get that last half-gallon of fuel in - and it just didn't work out. I hate to see that happen."

Kasey Kahne had a fairly consistent second lead over Denny Hamlin while Kyle Busch got past Greg Biffle for third place on lap 365. And that, as it turned out, was where the positions stayed until the chequered flag, with Brad Keselowski rolling over the finish line in fifth ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"It feels really good," said Kahne of his first visit to victory lane under the Hendrick Motorsports banner. "It's so special and awesome to drive for Rick and Linda Hendrick. For them to make me part of their company this is an unbelievable to drive for Hendrick Motorsports and be part of everything they do there."

For Kahne, it's a major bounce back to form after the opening races of the 2012 season saw a string of ill fortune befall him.

"I never really doubted myself," he insisted. "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. It was just a matter of getting past those five weeks and moving on and putting some solid races together.

"I just knew for myself I needed to step up," he added. "Our team is solid. Our car is solid. Mr. Hendrick gives us everything we need to win races and run up front. Tonight we were able to put it all together."

Hamlin moves up into second place in the Sprint Cup championship as a result of finishing second at Charlotte, and he said that the car had got better as the evening got cooler and started to free up the car.

"Ultimately, it gave us a shot to win," he said. "The first 10 laps of the last run, we got to them. But we wore our front tyres trying to get around them."

Kyle Busch had to settle for third place, and seemed reasonably happy with that outcome. "It was a really good race for us. We definitely fought our battles there throughout it and 600 miles is a long day," he said. "Just missed it on a couple runs there, got ourselves a little bit too far behind. We're just missing a little bit of something -- just something that we lack a little bit of speed or a bit of longevity sometimes throughout the runs," he admitted.

Fourth place was a strong result for Biffle and keeps him out in front of the Sprint Cup championship, but he couldn't hide his disappointment about the way the car had faded after running the first half of the race so strongly.

"The same thing happened to us in the All-Star Race. It seemed like when the speeds picked up and it was cool out, our car just started sliding the tyres a little bit," he said. "When the speeds picked up we would kind of slide across the track and couldn't get a hold of it. I don't know what we've got to do, but we've got to try and get better at night when the track is cooler.

"We have to go back to the drawing board a little bit," he added. "We need a little bit more grip, a little bit more turn when the sun goes down. That's what we need."

Despite the race lasting a punishing three hours, 51 minutes and 14 seconds, that actually constituted the briskest running of the Coca-Cola 600 in the event's history, shaving over five minutes off the previous fastest running of the race back in 1995.

Part of the reason for the comparative brevity of the 600-mile race was the low number of cautions: just five cautions in all for a total of 23 laps under yellow. All but one of them were routine debris cautions, the exception being an accident for Travis Kvapil slapping the wall in turn 4 on lap 171. With such a low number of cautions over such a long race distance, it was hardly surprising that only nine cars ended up finishing on the lead lap.

Early leader Marcos Ambrose ended up with a lengthy visit to the garage with a burned-up left-front wheel hub, a problem that also hit Penske's AJ Allemendinger.

"We burned the left-front hub up. it's a crazy thing," said Ambrose's crew chief Todd Parrott. "I guess a couple cars had issues burning hubs up, so we'll just have to regroup. We had a fast car and I think we had a car capable of running in the top five pretty easy tonight, so we'll just have to move on from here."

David Ragan was another not to make the full distance in the gruelling 600 mile endurance marathon.

"It's an engine issue and don't know exactly what it is, but they'll diagnose it some more," he said after pulling out of the race on lap 281. "We just lost a cylinder. If it was a short track, you could button it back up and go back out there on six or seven cylinders and try to make some progress, but on a mile-and-a-half like this you don't stand a chance."

It was a tough night for Cup rookie Danica Patrick, who finished in 30th place five laps off the lead by the end of an event that might have made the Indianapolis 500 seem like a cakewalk in terms of physical exertion. At one point, then-race leader Ambrose made a point of muscling her out of the way as he came past, annoyed by how far off the race pace she appeared to be at that stage.

"Those long runs hurt me," she admitted. "I'm just not great at making the best out of a car that's not perfect, and those long runs really show that. But that's what you get in Cup. You get a lot of green-flag running and I've got to learn how to deal with that."

But she was looking at the positives from the race as well: "We brought the GoDaddy car home and one of the goals was to finish. I would have liked to have been a little faster overall, but I think there were some times in there when it was decent."

Then again, her Cup boss Tony Stewart hardly had a stellar night either, finishing in 25th place three laps off the lead after that pit lane spat with Keselowski mid-race. Even reigning Cup champions can find 600 miles at Charlotte a tall order.

Full race results and NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings available.