HAMPTON, Ga. – It was Tony Stewart’s return to racing that dominated the headlines before Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it was Kasey Kahne who stole the show — and a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
In a race that went 10 laps beyond its scheduled distance of 325 laps, Kahne surged past Matt Kenseth on the second attempt at a green-white-checkered-flag finish to win for the first time this year and the third time at the 1.54-mile speedway.
Kenseth finished second and clinched a Chase spot on points, leaving just two of 16 positions in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff available in Saturday’s regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway.
After streaking into the lead on a restart with 24 laps left, Kahne held the top spot until a caution for a fracas between Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. slowed the field with less than two laps left.
On the first attempt at overtime, a multicar wreck in Turn 1 wiped out the dominant car of polesitter Kevin Harvick, requiring a second attempt at a two-lap shootout.
With four fresh tires to Kenseth’s two, Kahne overtook the No. 20 Toyota after he and Kenseth battled for a lap after the restart and pulled away to win the 17th race of his career by .574 seconds.
“We were all over the place during the race, but the guys stayed with me and worked hard,” Kahne said. “On those restarts — I didn’t know what would happen, because I had great restarts all night, and I struggle with restarts a lot. That’s big, because that is one of the things you have to be good at, and it worked really well tonight.”
It also took a huge weight off Kahne’s shoulders, as the end of the regular season approached.
“Yeah, we are locked in, and I hate that it comes down to this Atlanta or Richmond just about every year for me,” Kahne said of the pressure to make the Chase. “Sometimes we are in, sometimes we are out. But thankful that now at HMS (Hendrick Motorsports), I’ve been in all three years now. We have the pressure all the way to Richmond, but we made it again — thankful for that.”
Denny Hamlin ran third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. Danica Patrick finished sixth, beating by four positions the best previous finish by a female driver at Atlanta (Janet Guthrie was 10th in 1978).
The race that turned the season around for Kahne provided little solace for Stewart.
Starting a Cup race for the first time since his involvement in the fatal sprint car accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Speedway, Stewart charged forward from his 12th-place starting position and ran as high as fourth in the early going.
But Stewart’s race came undone moments after a restart on Lap 123, when Kyle Busch’s Toyota pinched Stewart’s Chevy into the outside wall off Turn 2, significantly damaging both cars. On Lap 160 Matt Kenseth, then the leader, passed Stewart to put the No. 14 a lap down.
Twelve laps later, a blown right front tire sent Stewart hard into the Turn 2 wall, forcing him to the garage and out of the race. Credited with a 41st-place finish, Stewart has one more chance — on Saturday at Richmond — to take advantage of a NASCAR dispensation that kept him eligible for the Chase.
Having missed three races, Stewart must win at the .75-mile short track to qualify for NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
After exiting his car, Stewart declined requests for interviews, but crew chief Chad Johnston spoke to reporters in the garage.
“I went into today with some pretty high hopes of finishing well and possibly coming out of here with a win, but it just didn’t work out in our favor,” Johnston said. “We got into a little trouble with the 18 (Busch) and got into the outside wall, knocked the toe out of it, and a lot of heavy right side damage. We were just trying to fix that and salvage what we could out of the day but then we blew a right front there right before that caution came out.”
If Stewart had issues on the track, so did one prominent driver on the Chase bubble. The shifter on Clint Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota broke, preventing him from getting the car into high gear. Bowyer lost 22 laps in the garage as his team made repairs. He finished 38th, leaving his chances to make the Chase on points in dire jeopardy.