For Kasey Kahne, victory in Sunday night's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was the watershed moment of his Sprint Cup career.

For one thing, it all but guaranteed Kahne a position in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, jumping him five positions to sixth in the series standings - a sizeable-if-not-comfortable 96 points ahead of 13th-place Brian Vickers, who finished seventh Sunday.

For Kahne, the victim of a late-season fold with back-to-back 40th-place finishes at Michigan and Bristol last year, the win was vindication. For Richard Petty Motorsports, the victory was cause for celebration, all but ensuring a Petty car in the Chase for the first time since NASCAR's playoff format was introduced in 2004.

Kahne beat resurgent Kevin Harvick to the finish line by 1.766secs, after a caution for Clint Bowyer's spin on lap 309 erased a sizeable lead for Harvick, whose car was unbeatable on long runs, but no match for Kahne's over the short haul.

Kahne broke away from Harvick and third-place finisher Juan Pablo Montoya after a restart on lap 315 of 325. David Reutimann finished fourth, followed by Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin, who locked himself into the Chase with the sixth-place finish.

"I knew Harvick and Montoya were going to be tough there at the end," said Kahne, who won for the second time this season and the eleventh time in his career, "But I got 'em. We were really good there for about ten laps.

"We did it, and we did it right there at the end. When we got that restart with eleven to go, I knew we had a chance. This team just stepped up. The pit-stops were awesome all night. The calls from [crew chief] Kenny Francis were perfect. I knew we could go fast for about 15 laps - faster than anybody. After that, I was getting a little bit too loose to hang with Harvick and Montoya.

"But, with eleven laps to go, just getting to the front was what I was thinking I needed to do and, once we did it, everything was perfect from there on out. It was great team effort, something that Richard Petty Motorsports really needed."

Kahne wasn't the only driver who helped himself immensely. Montoya improved to eighth in the standings, 88 points ahead of Vickers. Martin remained tenth in the standings but widened his advantage over 13th place to 69 points.

"I think it's great," said Montoya, who was victimised by tyre problems in the previous two races at Michigan and Bristol, "I think everyone on the team did an amazing job. Last race in Bristol, I thought we had a chance of winning, [but] we had a flat tyre. It cost us a lot in points.

"Two races with flat tyres... we lost a bunch of points, so it's always kind of worrying. Every restart you go 'please, nobody slide into me', things like that. It was nice to see that Kasey and Kevin and myself were the three fastest cars by a mile. Once you got in line, after the first corner, you knew you were fine."

The save of the night went to Matt Kenseth, who scraped the wall in the early going and was mired in 30th position before his crew repaired the #17 Ford and improved the handling. Aided by excellent work in the pits on subsequent stops, Kenseth drove through the field and finished twelfth. That kept him twelfth in the standings, 20 points ahead of Vickers.

Kenseth's Roush Fenway team-mate Greg Biffle also fought an ill-handling car, but was able to regain a lost lap, thanks to a free pass under caution for Jimmie Johnson's spin on lap 200. Biffle worked his way up to tenth at the finish and is eleventh in the standings, one point behind Martin.

Kyle Busch, on the other hand, is 14th in the standings after finishing 13th. Despite four victories this season, Busch is 37 points behind Kenseth with one race left before the Chase field is set Saturday night at Richmond.

by Reid Spencer / Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service