Team Chevy’s Kasey Kahne secured his first win of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the Oral B USA 500, earning himself a much needed spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in the second last regular season race.
Kahne, who admitted to struggling with restarts, took the lead after battling for two laps with Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin following two restarts. The first caution was put out with only two laps left when Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch collided. Upon the restart, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano went into the wall and prompted a second caution period.
On the restart, Kahne had four fresh tires as he sat in third behind Kenseth and Hamlin. The two managed to hold off Kahne on the first restart, but he and his No. 5 Chevrolet SS were carrying too much speed on the second start and Kahne eventually went flying past both of them for the win.
“I felt better about the first restart because the outside lane was really slick and I hardly spun the tires,” Kenseth told ESPN post-race. “I felt really good about that. The second one I didn’t feel nearly as good about. (Kahne) was behind me. They had so much speed. They drove right up between me and Denny.”
The bigger news out of Atlanta Sunday night was the return of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart. Atlanta marked the first race the veteran Sprint Cup driver participated in since 20-year old Kevin Ward Jr. was struck and killed by his sprint car during a race in upstate New York last month.
Stewart’s race ended prematurely after getting off to a strong start. In the early stages he ran in the top 10, however on lap 122 Kyle Busch’s car spun and collected Stewart’s as well, sending them both into the wall. The crash damaged the No. 14 Chevrolet badly, puncturing the right front tire and effectively ending Stewart’s night. He went on to finish 41st in the 43 car field.
Stewart is winless so far this year and will need to score a victory at Richmond International Raceway on September 6 if he wishes to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Still, no matter the results, his pit crew and fans were just happy to see him back on the track.
“It was good to see him back,” said Stewart-Haas Racing spokesman Mike Arning. “Part of that healing process for him was getting back in the race car. This is what he’s done since he was 8 years old. This is his family.”
Other Team Chevy drivers that finished in the top ten at Atlanta include Jimmie Johnson in fourth, Ryan Newman in seventh and Kyle Larson in eighth. Danica Patrick also saw a career-best finish of sixth place. Patrick, who has four career top-10 finishes, worked her way into the top 15 and was in the top 10 by lap 300. A late-race pit stop put her on the inside for a restart, helping her to race her way to a sixth place finish, just shy of her first-ever top five finish.
The next race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and the final race of regular season competition before the Chase for the Spring Cup begins will be the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 6. Jeff Gordon currently leads the standings, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. trailing in second by 21 points and Matt Kenseth in third 72 points down from Gordon.