Kahne bolsters Chase chances

9/7/2009 - NASCAR

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Kasey Kahne came into Atlanta Motor Speedway looking vulnerable to drop out of the top 12 in Sprint Cup points and miss the Chase.

He left with a runaway win at the end and leapt five spots in the standings, to sixth, bolstering his shot at NASCAR's playoffs for the otherwise struggling Richard Petty Motorsports. Kahne, who'd been faltering in recent weeks, fell to 11th last week with a dismal 28th-place finish in Bristol, Tenn.

Kahne took the lead just after the final restart, with 10 laps to go in Sunday night's Pep Boys 500. From there he simply checked out on his nearest pursuers, Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished second and third.

"We did it, and we did it right there at the end," Kahne said of a finish that played right into his hands. All evening he'd been strong on short runs, but Harvick had been overwhelming on long runs and had dominated the late stages.

But when Harvick's teammate, Clint Bowyer, spun with 16 laps left, "I knew we were in trouble," Harvick said, "because it took our car 15 or 20 laps to get going."

Kahne admittedly had been "terrible going up through the gears on restarts" for most of the evening. But on the final double-file restart with 11 laps left, Kahne started on the inside, with David Reutimann behind him.

As the green flag flew, "Reutimann gave me a push on the front stretch," Kahne said. "When Reutimann gave me that push, I was like, 'Man, I think I might have a shot here,' and I cleared Harvick pretty quick, and we were gone."

"I knew I wasn't going to catch him once he got by," said Harvick, who was trying to break a losing streak that is now 96 points races, dating back to the Daytona 500 of 2007. "He came by me like he was running qualifying laps."

"Harvick and Montoya were really tough," Kahne said. "We had a little bit better car for 10 laps."

Kahne led intermittently throughout the race. "I knew we could go fast for about 15 laps [per run]," he said. "But after that, we got a little bit too loose to hang with Harvick and Montoya."

"To win on a night like tonight when the Chase and everything has been so tight for the last two months -- this team stepped up," Kahne said. "[It was] something Richard Petty Motorsports really needed."

Said the King, the 72-year-old Petty, "No matter how good you run, circumstances are beyond anybody's control. Circumstances fell our way with that last caution flag, and put us in position to win."

A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 people turned out, the most here since 1998, when Atlanta marked the end of the NASCAR season, and far more than ever gathered for the long-traditional Labor Day weekend race at Darlington, S.C.

"To see the crowd that was here tonight and be at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Labor Day weekend, you have good weather, there were so many people just during driver intros, the crowd was excited," Kahne said. "It was great to see.

"Since I've been racing in the Cup series, I haven't seen a crowd like that, especially that excited."

Above and below Kahne in the points, there was some scrambling of the standings.

Kyle Busch, who started the race strong but struggled later with an ill-handling car, dropped from 13th to 14th and is now 37 points from making the top 12. Brian Vickers swapped places with Busch, moving into 13th, 20 points behind Matt Kenseth, with a seventh-place finish.

Kenseth had to pull off the strongest comeback of the race to hang onto 12th. He fell back as far as 31st with a terrible car, but his crew kept adjusting and Kenseth wound up 12th.

Jimmie Johnson, seeking a fourth consecutive Cup, had to go to the garage twice for repairs of a broken axle, wound up 36th and dropped to third in the points, behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who had a hot-and-cold evening but finished sixth.

Runaway points leader Tony Stewart finished 12th after having to re-enter his pits with a loose lug nut, but still has a hefty 237-point lead with one race to go in the regular season, Saturday night in Richmond, Va. After that, the points will be reset with the Chase being seeded by number of wins.

Busch and Mark Martin each have four wins this season, but both still have to make the Chase to share top seeding. Martin, with a fifth-place finish here, remained in 10th place in the standings.

Kurt Busch dropped a notch to seventh after crashing, and Ryan Newman dropped two spots to ninth with a ninth-place finish.

Montoya's third-place finish lifted him a spot to eighth in the standings, strengthening his bid to become the first foreign-born driver to make a Chase, and the first one ever to win a Cup championship.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.