Kahne sprints to victory in Atlanta
In the first Labor Day race run in the Southeast since 2004, Kasey Kahne moved a step closer to cementing his place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a late race pass over Kevin Harvick to win Sunday night’s Pep Boys Auto 500 under the lights at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In front of a packed grandstand for Atlanta’s first ever Sprint Cup race under the lights, Kahne jetted past Harvick on a restart with 11 laps to go and checked out to a two-second lead to score his 11th career Sprint Cup victory and his second win of the 2009 season.
More importantly, the win bumped him from 11th to fifth in the points standing and solidly in contention for a slot in the 12-driver Chase field with just one race left before the playoff season begins.
“It’s all about making the Chase,” said Kahne. “I knew Harvick and Montoya were going to be tough. Kevin was best on the long run, but when we got that last caution and the restart with 11 to go, I knew we had a shot.
“I knew we could go fast for about 15 laps, faster than anybody. Once we got out front, everything was perfect from there out.”
Juan Pablo Montoya came home third, followed by David Reutimann and Mark Martin.
Fresh off his win in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday night, Harvick had the field covered for most of the night, working his up from his 18th-place starting spot to take the top spot on lap 168.
With a car that seemed unbeatable on the long runs, Harvick easily outpaced the field during the long green flag stretches, leading in a Sprint Cup race for just the second time this season while hoping to finally snap a 95-race winless streak.
With 15 laps to go and a nearly two second lead over Montoya, Harvick appeared to have the race in the bag until Harvick’s teammate Clint Bowyer spun coming off turn four to bring out the ninth and final caution of the day.
Harvick’s team got him off pit road with the lead, followed by Kahne, Reutimann and Montoya.
Harvick chose the outside line for the restart, with Kahne to his inside. At the green flag, Kahne got a strong push from Reutimann to pull even with Harvick and then powered past for the lead as they came through the backstretch.
Harvick’s car, so dominant on the long runs, proved no match for Kahne, who went unchallenged to the checkered flag.
“I knew we were in trouble when that caution came out,” said Harvick. “We had a great car on the long runs. (Kahne) was a lot better on the short runs. It just came down to the short run tonight.
“I knew I wasn’t going to catch (Kahne) once he got by. He went by me like he was making qualifying laps. We didn’t give up, we went as hard as we could and came up one short.”
Montoya led 31 laps looking for his first oval-track victory, but was satisfied to just finish in the top five and advance to eighth in the points standings, looking to make the Chase for the first time in his four-year career.
“This third place makes it a little bit closer to the Chase,” said Montoya. “Everybody is working so hard to make this happen. If we keep running like this, we might even have a shot at the championship.”
With one race left before the Chase begins, several drivers came into Sunday night’s race all fighting for a shot at the final spots in the field.
Matt Kenseth managed to hold onto the 12th and final spot in the Chase thanks to a 12-place finish in Sunday’s race. Brian Vickers kept himself in the hunt with a seventh-place finish that moved him from up one spot to 13th in the standings, just 20 points behind Kenseth.
Looking for a victory to help propel him into the top-12, Kyle Busch led early in the event before falling back to a 13th-place finish, knocking him to 14th in the points but still just 37 points behind Kenseth.
Several of the front Chase contenders suffered through a miserable night under the lights, including Carl Edwards and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Nursing a broken foot from playing Frisbee earlier in the week, Edwards’ car suffered a damaged oil cooler that put him behind the wall for several laps, eventually finishing 23 laps down in 37th.
Johnson, after leading earlier in the event, began to fade with an ill-handling car before finally spinning out on lap 200. Later in the race he broke an axle during a pit stop, costing him 22 laps behind the wall for repairs. Johnson ended up 36th and fell to third in the points behind Jeff Gordon, but still solidly locked into the Chase field.
Kurt Busch, winner of the spring race here in March, was unable to pull off the season sweep, dropping out of the event after hitting the wall on lap 244 and finishing 38th, sliding to seventh in points behind Kahne.
* Denotes Rookie
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