Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick had the field covered on-track at the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night; Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth had it covered on pit road. But at the end of a grueling 335-lap affair, it was Hendrick Motorsports’ Kasey Kahne that walked away with the hardware — and a coveted spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Kahne capitalized on a frantic final 12 laps in the Oral-B USA 500 to notch his first win of the 2014 season, and in the process assured that each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams would be represented in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff that begins in two weeks.
“I told a couple friends this week, ‘I have to win. I have to win Sunday night,’” said Kahne, who now owns 17 career Cup wins — 10 of which have come on NASCAR’s 1.5- and 2-mile intermediate tracks. “It was all that I could think about. I knew Atlanta was a better opportunity for myself to win at than Richmond.
“I just knew that tonight we needed it. When I came off Turn 4 and I could see the checkered, right there is the first time I knew I was in the Chase and it's such a relief. I have the best teammates and (team owner Rick Hendrick) gives us everything that we need.”
As with most of the intermediate tracks, being up front and in clean air was the order of the day. Harvick paced the field for 195 laps but was continuously beaten off pit road by JGR rivals Hamlin and Kenseth.
“We lost control every time we came to pit road tonight,” Harvick said. “I thought we had that (problem) better, but we got just absolutely murdered on pit road every time we came down by the 11 (Hamlin) and the 20 (Kenseth).”
Throughout the evening, Harvick was able to drive around his opponents within five laps of a restart, but the spots lost on pit road finally took their toll after a round of yellow-flag stops with 27 laps remaining. It was on the ensuing restart that Kahne took the lead, kept Harvick in his rearview mirror and appeared headed to victory lane. However, a caution with a pair of laps remaining sent the race into the first of two green-white-checker finishes.
In the first, Harvick lined up fourth and found his No. 4 Chevrolet playing bumper cars with Paul Menard and Joey Logano, then into the wall, before the field hit Turn 1. His shot at win No. 3 on the season had taken its conclusive blow.
On the second green-white-checker restart, Kahne, on four fresh tires, once again pounced from his inside-lane, third-place position, blowing by Hamlin and finally disposing of Kenseth at the white flag. He methodically clicked off the final lap, winning by .574 seconds.
Kenseth, Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
“Man, they just go,” Kenseth said of Kahne’s HMS engine. “I just don’t know how to defend that. We did everything we could — it was a great call by Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief), great pit stops that put us in position to win — I just couldn’t hold on.”
Despite not having won a race this season — after a sterling eight-win campaign in 2013 — Kenseth sits third in the Cup standings and locked his team in the playoffs by virtue of points with the Atlanta performance. In NASCAR’s reformatted Chase, the top 16 drivers with wins are slotted into the playoffs. In the absence of 16 winners, the highest ranked teams in the standings complete the card. Kahne was the 13th driver to score a win through 25 of 26 regular-season races.
Ryan Newman, ninth in the standings with a 42-point cushion, will likely claim the 15th spot, leaving a one-race showdown for the final position. Greg Biffle (plus-23 points), Clint Bowyer (-23) and rookie Kyle Larson (-24) are set to stage a three-car battle at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday for the final Chase berth. Paul Menard (-53) and Austin Dillon (-54) most assuredly would have to win the regular-season finale to leapfrog their competitors and sneak into the playoffs.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.