Hampton, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - Kasey Kahne clinched a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by winning Sunday night's Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while Tony Stewart wrecked at the halfway point and finished 41st in his return to racing.
In a long race that featured two green-white-checkered finish attempts, Kahne passed Matt Kenseth for the lead just before they crossed the line to complete the penultimate lap. He held off Kenseth at the finish by 0.6 seconds for his first win of the 2014 Sprint Cup Series season.
Kahne first took the lead on lap 303 when he moved ahead of Denny Hamlin after a restart. Kahne had built a sizeable lead and appeared to be on his way to an easy victory, but Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. collided between turns 1 and 2 in the closing laps, with Truex hitting the wall. It forced the ninth caution and set up the first two-lap overtime finish attempt.
During that caution, Kenseth and Paul Menard came out of the pits 1-2 after both drivers changed only two tires. Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kahne exited 3-5, respectively, following their four-tire changes.
After the restart, Harvick got sandwiched between Menard and Joey Logano, which caused Harvick to hit the wall and forced the final caution. Harvick, the pole sitter, had dominated most of this race by leading 195 of 335 laps.
Kenseth led the way for the final restart with two laps to go, but as Kahne was passing him for the position while coming out of turn 4, Kenseth wiggled a bit.
Kahne scored his 17th career victory in NASCAR's premier series but his first since August 2013 at Pocono (39 races ago). It was also Kahne's third Cup win at Atlanta. His other victories here occurred in 2006 and '09.
"We were all over the place during the race, but the guys [No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team] stayed with me and worked hard," Kahne said. "On that last restart, I didn't know what would happen because I had great restarts all night and I've 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."
All four drivers from Hendrick Motorsports are now in the 10-race championship Chase, which begins in two weeks at Chicagoland. Kahne's teammates -- Jeff Gordon, the current points leader, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson -- have three wins each this season.
The series will conclude its regular season next Saturday night at Richmond.
"We are locked in [the Chase], but I hate that it comes down to this - Atlanta or Richmond - just about every year for me," Kahne said. "Sometimes we are in, and sometimes we are out. I'm thankful that I have been in the Chase all three years now with HMS."
Kenseth has yet to win a race this season, but his second-place run at Atlanta did secure him a spot in the Chase due to his third-place ranking in points. He led the series with seven victories in 2013, his first season driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
"I'd like to consistently have wins. That's what I'd like to have," Kenseth said. "The team has really been performing at a high level all year. I know when you look at the record books we have some crashes and some bad finishes and we don't have a win yet, but I feel like our pit stops have been more consistent and faster than they were last year."
Hamlin, who is Kenseth's teammate at JGR, finished third, followed by Johnson and Carl Edwards.
Danica Patrick's sixth-place run marked her career-best finish in Sprint Cup. Patrick started 27th. She had finished seventh at Kansas in May and then eighth at Daytona in July.
"It was a long night," Patrick said. "That race felt like it was 700 miles long. Sometimes when you are running well they feel like that because you are hoping it stays there, keeps going well, and you keep improving and don't lose it. There were definitely a couple of times late in the race when we fell back. In the middle of the race, the car was very good. We took a little step back, and then it came back in the end."
Stewart, who is Harvick and Patrick's teammate as well as their team co-owner, made his first start since his involvement in a fatal accident during an Aug. 9 sprint car race at a dirt track in Upstate New York. Stewart struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr.
Stewart started 12th and quickly made his way into the top-six, but after a restart on lap 122, he made contact with the wall while battling Kyle Busch for position. He managed to continue in the race.
However, Stewart's night at this fast 1.54-mile track came to a premature end on lap 172 when he blew his right-front tire and crashed into the wall. He was running outside the top-20 at the time.
"Sorry guys, you deserve better than this," Stewart said over his team radio while driving his damaged No. 14 Chevrolet to the garage area.
Stewart declined to comment on his incident.
"We got off to a good start, and the car had speed all weekend long," Stewart's crew chief, Chad Johnston, said. "We went into today with some pretty good hopes of finishing well and possibly coming out of here with a win. But it just didn't work out in our favor.
"We got into a little bit of trouble with the 18 [Busch] and hit the outside wall. It knocked the tow out of [the car]. There was a lot of heavy right-side damage. And we were trying to fix that and then salvage what we could out of the day. Then we blew a right-front [tire] there. It's really good to have Tony back."
Regan Smith (Watkins Glen) and Jeff Burton (Michigan and Bristol) substituted for Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet while Stewart had been in seclusion for the previous three weeks.
Harvick ended up finishing 19th one day after he won the Nationwide Series race at Atlanta. He led 159 of 195 laps in that event.
"We all probably could have given each other more room," Harvick said of his accident with Menard and Logano. "I knew the No. 27 [Menard] 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 No. 22 [Logano] was up there. The No. 27 kept coming up and just came up until we all wrecked."
Ryan Newman placed seventh, followed by rookie Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola and Greg Biffle, who maintained the 16th and final spot on the provisional NASCAR Chase grid.
Clint Bowyer entered this 500-mile race 15th on the Chase grid, but Bowyer suffered a broken shifter early in the event and had to spend 20 laps in the garage for repairs before he returned. He finished 38th and fell 23 points behind Biffle for the last spot in the playoff field. Larson is only one point in back of Bowyer.
Logano, who claimed his third win of the season last weekend at Bristol, finished 14th, while his Team Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, placed 39th after he wrecked on lap 297. Keselowski hit Josh Wise from behind and then made contact with the wall.
Ty Dillon, the 22-year-old grandson of NASCAR multi-team owner Richard Childress, finished 25th in his first career Sprint Cup start. Dillon's elder brother, Austin, a rookie in the series this season, placed one spot ahead in 24th.