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Kasey Kahne will join his Hendrick Motorsports team mates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson in this year's Sprint Cup Chase championship play-offs after claiming his first win of the season in the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night.
"Yeah, we are locked in," said a relieved Kahne after the race. "It was just an unbelievable way to make the Chase. And to win at Atlanta, it's a tough track, a track that I love coming to, so it feels really good to get a victory here tonight.
"Friday we started terrible, came back Saturday and ran really good, and then raced pretty well tonight at times," he said. "We were all over the place during the race but the guys stayed with me and worked hard.
"I hate it comes down to this - Atlanta or Richmond - just about every year for me," he pointed out. "Sometimes we are in, sometimes we are out. But thankful that now at HMS I have been in all three years now. We have the pressure all the way to Richmond, but we made it again, thankful for that."
Starting from tenth place, Kahne didn't really feature in the first half of the proceedings and only made it into the lead for the first time on lap 303 in a race that was dominated in its early stages by pole winner Kevin Harvick. He had an uninterrupted run at the front for the first 80 laps of the race until beaten off pit road by Denny Hamlin under a caution sparked by Jeff Gordon hitting the wall in turns 3 and 4 after blowing a tyre while running in second place.
Hamlin and Harvick traded the lead back and forth through to the next caution on lap 118 for Ryan Truex spinning out in turn 4. Matt Kenseth got the better of his JGR team mate Hamlin to take the lead at the restart while Harvick struggled and slipped back before Marcos Ambrose blew an engine to put the race back under yellow for a spell.
"Something happened going into turn two with the engine. It didn't give any warning, and there was nothing I could do," said Ambrose. "It's gonna be a bad night for us. It's too bad. We were fighting to get our lead lap back and was working hard at it, but it just wasn't meant to be."
When the race went back to green, Kurt Busch powered past Kenseth to take the lead for the next stint until Hamlin, Kenseth and then Harvick returned to form at the front and took the race through a number of cautions including two for debris on the backstretch all the way to lap 298. By then it was Harvick who was back out in the front when Brad Keselowski, who had started the race on the front row alongside Harvick, made heavy contact with the car of Josh Wise as the pair ran into congestion on the frontstraight.
"I made a pit road mistake a little bit earlier that got us behind, but got up to fourth and had a shot at winning the race," said Keselowski. "Kevin was really strong, but we were just starting the pit sequence and one of the slower cars in front of us was pitting and so was Denny Hamlin, who was running second or third there, and he just made the decision to pit from the middle lane and clogged the whole track. That kind of ruined our day."
Keselowski was out of the race with damage, but Hamlin was unscathed and led Harvick to the green flag on lap 303; however it was Kahne, restarting from third place alongside Jimmie Johnson after a final round of pit stops under yellow, who was able to get the best restart of any of the leaders which allowed him to take the lead and immediately start to move away from the pack.
"The last 60 laps, I felt really good," Kahne said later. "I was able to get that restart, get by Denny, and just could kind of pace. Myself and Harvick were pretty equal at that point in time, when I was in the front and had the clean air, so that helped us."
Kahne had almost a second in hand by the time they got to the penultimate lap, but before the white flag could come out there was an accident further back between Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch that brought out out the ninth caution of the night and sent the race into green-white-chequered overtime conditions.
"I couldn't drive off the corners,” said Truex. “But we hung in there, fighting for every possible position until Kyle, for whatever reason, ran into the back of me, causing pretty good damage to our car. I passed him clean earlier and then he comes back and hits me from behind. It was totally uncalled for and hard to figure out why he did what he did."
No one wanted to be left on old tyres for the final shoot-out, although strategies differed: Kenseth took two new tyres and came back out at the front alongside Paul Menard, with Hamlin and Harvick on the second row with Kahne dropping to fifth place after taking four new tyres. When the green flag came out, Kenseth took off but Menard was slow and moved up into Harvick's path which resulted in the #4 hitting the wall, aborting the first GWC attempt and putting Harvick's hitherto dominant car out of the running for the race win.
"We all probably could have given each other more room," admitted Harvick. "I knew the #27 was going to get a bad restart and I tried to time it to where I could get on the outside of him. I got on the outside of him and he just kept coming up and I wasn't going to let off the gas; I knew the #22 [Joey Logano] was up there. The #27 kept coming up and just came up until we all wrecked."
Kahne was up to the second row for the next try at getting the race finished, and his full set of new tyres enabled him to get the perfect start to put him side-by-side with Kenseth for the lead. Both men were highly motivated to go all-out for the win, as they were seeking their first win of the year and a priceless berth in the Chase. Finally the deadlock was resolved in Kahne's favour and the #5 ultimately crossed the line half a second ahead after a grand total of ten laps of overtime.
"Couldn't believe the caution with two to go," said Kahne. "Those guys wrecking, and then we were able to come back and get another restart, and get to the win, and get by Matt - which he ran great for having two tyres there, and we were able to get by him and get the victory."
"I had great restarts all night and I've struggled with restarts a lot [this season] so that was big. That's one of the things you have to be good at, and it worked really well tonight."
"I had a really good restart the first time and I was kinda hoping we would go green from there," contributed Kenseth. "I just spun the left-rear a little bit and the #5 got up the middle there. I was able to get through 1 and 2 wide open and almost wide open [through 3 and 4]. I had him cleared, he just somehow got enough momentum to somehow get back up beside me. We did all we could."
Hamlin held on to third place ahead of Johnson, with Carl Edwards holding on to fifth position just ahead of Danica Patrick who achieved her best Cup result to date, in the process beating Janet Guthrie's 1978 record of tenth place for the previous best finish by a female driver at Atlanta. Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola and Greg Biffle rounded out the top ten with Dale Earnhardt Jr. just missing out after sustaining some lower grille damage mid-race.
Tony Stewart's return to racing duty this weekend after three weeks out in the wake of the regional racing accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park that claimed the life of fellow competitor Kevin Ward Jr. did not go as smoothly as the three-time Cup champion would have liked. He was involved in a restart accident on lap 126 when Kyle Busch pinched him into the wall at turn 2 which left both cars with damage; Stewart was a lap down when a tyre blew on the #14 and put Stewart into the wall again and this time out of the race on lap 172.
"We got into a little trouble with the #18 and got into the outside wall, knocked the toe out of it, and a lot of heavy right side damage," reported Stewart's crew chief Chad Johnston. "We were just trying to fix that and salvage what we could out of the day but then we blew a right front there."
Kahne's win at Atlanta is his 17th victory in 385 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and means that he is now locked-in to the Chase along with his Hendrick team mates. The other drivers already confirmed in the play-offs, which begin at Chicagoland Speedway in two weeks' time, are Penske pair Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano; Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards; JGR pair Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin; Stewart-Haas Racing team mates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch; Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola; and JTG Daugherty Racing's AJ Allmendinger.
Despite missing out on the win this weekend, Matt Kenseth is also now locked in to the Chase as he cannot be overhauled in the points. The final two positions are provisionally in the hands of Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle, who are the next highest points scorers yet to win a race in 2014. Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson have outside chances of bumping Biffle out of the Chase if either has a particularly successful outing at Richmond next week, while any still-winless driver in the top 30 could yet qualify for the Chase if they win that final race before the cut-off. However, Bowyer's hopes took a blow at Atlanta after a broken gear stick left him 21 laps off the lead and in 38th place by the finish
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