HAMPTON, Ga. – Kasey Kahne of Enumclaw grabbed the lead on the restart following a caution with 23 laps remaining and held off Matt Kenseth in a two-lap battle to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night.
Kahne’s first victory of the season earned him a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
“We’ve had kind of a downer year at times,” said the 34-year-old Kahne, who has 17 career victories.
Kenseth also qualified for the Chase on points, leaving two positions in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff available in Saturday’s regular-season finale in Richmond, Va.
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Denny Hamlin was third, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Danica Patrick.
Meanwhile, Tony Stewart’s much-anticipated return to racing ended a little more than halfway through the Oral-B USA 500.
Stewart hit a wall for the second time after his right-front tire blew out on Lap 172, ending his night with a 41st-place finish.
It was Stewart’s first race since the sprint car he was driving struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. in an Aug. 9 race at a dirt track in New York. The fatal wreck remains under investigation.
With two laps remaining and Kahne holding a seemingly solid lead over Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch collided, forcing a caution flag.
Harvick, who led 195 laps, had contact with Joey Logano in heavy traffic and hit the wall on the restart, bringing another caution flag and a second shootout.
Kahne, who had four fresh tires, started behind Kenseth and Hamlin on the final restart.
“I struggle with restarts a lot and that’s big,” Kahne said. “That’s one of the things you have to be good at. It worked really well tonight.”
Harvick started from the pole and led the first 80 laps.
Stewart’s problems started when he went into the wall earlier in the race after a collision with Busch.
Kenseth began the night fifth in the points race, but not yet locked into the Chase because he had no victories. Kenseth needed to finish seventh or better Sunday to secure his place in the playoffs.
Stewart started in 12th and moved up to sixth in the first five laps. Driving on the high part of the track, he made two more passes to move to fourth a few laps later. He fell back to 12th before his first big setback: Busch cut in front of Stewart, forcing Stewart into the wall.
After two visits to the pits for repairs, Stewart didn’t last long. Fifty laps later, he hit the wall on Turn 2 after his right-front tire blew. This time he drove his more heavily damaged car to the garage, and his race was over.