HAMPTON, Ga. – Kasey Kahne gave himself a huge boost in the Chase for the Championship with a victory Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Kahne, of Enumclaw, Wash., leaped five spots in the Sprint Cup standings – from a tenuous 11th to more comfortable sixth – with his victory in the Pep Boys Auto 500. He’ll be able to breathe a little easier going into next weekend’s race at Richmond that will set the 12-driver field for the season-ending playoff.
Kevin Harvick, who won the Nationwide race Saturday night, was in position for a weekend double until teammate Clint Bowyer spun with 15 laps to go, bringing out the final caution of the night. Kahne got Harvick on the restart and pulled away to an easy 1.766-second win.
Harvick held on for second, matching his best performance in a disappointing season. Juan Pablo Montoya finished third and solidified his odds of making the Chase for the first time.
“We did it right at the end,” said Kahne, who picked up his second win of the year and 11th of his career. “We had an unbelievable car throughout the race. I think Kevin was the best on the long runs. We did it at the end.”
Denny Hamlin became the fourth driver to clinch a spot in the Chase with a sixth-place showing. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson were already in.
Kahne is feeling a lot better about his chances, too.
“I knew Harvick and Montoya were going to be really tough there at the end,” Kahne said. “We just got them. We had a really good car for about 10 laps.”
There was no change among the top 12, though there was some shuffling in their order. Stewart still leads, followed by Gordon, Johnson, Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kahne, Kurt Busch, Montoya, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Brian Vickers will go to Richmond just 20 points behind Kenseth, with Kyle Busch 37 points out of a return to the Chase.
Montoya, the former IndyCar champion and Formula One driver, is hoping to make the Chase for the first time in his three-year NASCAR career. As soon as he climbed from his car, he searched out a computer to see where he was in the standings heading to Richmond.
“It just makes life easier,” Montoya said. “In the position we are in right now, it’s just about going there – we have a great car for there – just be smart and get a top 10.”
Harvick has no chance of winning a championship. He’s 23rd in the points and has spent more time this season answering questions about his future with Richard Childress Racing.
“We had a great car tonight,” Harvick said. “I knew we were in trouble there at the end because it took our car 15 or 20 laps to get going. But, hey, that’s a long way from where we’ve been.”
The first scheduled night race in Atlanta history and a new Labor Day weekend date that was a big hit with the fans. At least 100,000 turned out on a comfortably warm night after years of declining attendance at the 1.54-mile trioval south of Atlanta.
Johnson came into this race saying he’s never felt better heading into a Chase. He was probably feeling a little different after a miserable performance under the lights – 22 laps behind in 36th place.
Johnson was running second when he lost control of his No. 48 car coming out of turn two. He managed to control his slide, avoid the inside wall and get back to the pits for another set of tires, but the mishap knocked him all the way back to 19th. He was on the verge of getting back into the top 10 when a broken axle during a pit stop forced him back to the garage for repairs. With all chances of winning gone, he had to go back to the garage one more time to fix a balky gear box.
Edwards hobbled out to his car on crutches after breaking his right foot playing frisbee a few days earlier. His pedal foot didn’t give him any problem, but his night was ruined by a hole in his radiator. He had to go to the garage for lengthy repairs and wound up just behind Johnson in 37th.
Kurt Busch, who won the spring race in Atlanta with a dominating run, didn’t come close to matching that performance. He struggled with an ill-handling car most of the night before finally slamming the wall coming out of turn four on lap 244 of 325. His night was done and he ended up 38th.
Younger brother Kyle was hoping to get back in the mix with a strong run, but finishing 13th actually knocked him back one spot.
Pole-sitter Martin Truex ran strong early on, leading three times for a race-high 68 laps. He was nowhere to be found at the end, struggling home in 26th.