Kasey Kahne took a great step towards securing a place in this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the title by beating a dominant Denny Hamlin to victory at Loudon.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Kahne's second win of the year means he leads the "wildcard" standings, which give drivers with victories and ranked between 10th and 20th in the points a place in the playoff series.
Starting from the front row, Kahne was a top-five contender all afternoon and grabbed the lead for good during the final pit stops under the last caution of the day, waved after the engine on David Reutimann's Chevrolet blew up 67 laps from the finish.
That last stop proved to be the pivotal moment of the race, as Kahne was one of several top runners taking on two new tires while Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota), who was leading when the caution waved, took on a full new set and had to take the green flag down from 13th in the order.
Although Hamlin was able to drive through the field and cut into Kahne's lead in the closing laps, he had to settle for second at the flag, losing three possible bonus points towards his Chase seeding.
"We ran in the top five the whole race, but Denny was obviously the best car," said Kahne. "We had a great [car] and we just had to battle hard throughout the whole race.
"We did it. We had good pit strategy, got the track position, and we were able to lead those final laps there."
Hamlin, who led 151 of the 301 scheduled laps, was gracious in defeat and admitted a miscommunication with his crew chief Darian Grubb led to the wrong strategy decision before the final stop.
"When the caution flies, when pit road opens, that time is so small, your time to communicate, figure out what you're going to do, you really have about 45 seconds to get it," said Hamlin. "Between all that what happened was Darian asked me how much of the tires it felt like I used up. I said I felt like I used them up a substantial amount. I'd been on the lefts for quite a few laps.
"So my information to him was, 'yeah, I've used up the tires.' He said, 'I think two [new tires] is the call.' I said, 'OK, just give me tires and no adjustments'. He took that as I meant four tires. So it's just that small miscommunication just messed us up a little bit."
Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer finished third, gaining track position during the final stops and making good use of it to beat the rest of the Hendrick roster as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fourth, followed by Penske's Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
The five-time champion lost any chance of victory after short-pitting just before the final caution waved, while Kyle Busch, who had led 72 laps from pole, got caught with the wrong strategy as well. The JGR driver was on a different pit sequence while trying to recover from two slow pitstops and and a speeding penalty.
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick, Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle and Stewart-Haas' Ryan Newman rounded out the top 10, while Newman's reigning champion teammate Tony Stewart was 12th after struggling with handling for most of the afternoon, finishing right ahead of points leader Matt Kenseth (Roush).
Results - 301 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevrolet 2h44m24.000s
2. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota + 2.738s
3. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota + 5.435s
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 6.305s
5. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 7.003s
6. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 8.215s
7. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 9.649s
8. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 13.658s
9. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 15.142s
10. Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 17.395s
11. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 17.917s
12. Tony Stewart Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 18.093s
13. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 19.200s
14. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 21.586s
15. Brian Vickers Waltrip Toyota + 21.676s
16. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 22.205s
17. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 26.971s
18. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 28.131s
19. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 30.250s
20. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 1 lap
21. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 1 lap
22. Sam Hornish Jr Penske Dodge + 1 lap
23. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 1 lap
24. Kurt Busch Phoenix Chevrolet + 2 laps
25. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 2 laps
26. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 3 laps
27. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 3 laps
28. Aric Almirola Petty Ford + 3 laps
29. Landon Cassill BK Toyota + 4 laps
30. Travis Kvapil BK Toyota + 4 laps
31. Ken Schrader FAS Lane Ford + 7 laps
32. Stephen Leicht Circle Sport Chevrolet + 8 laps
David Reutimann Baldwin Chevrolet 229 laps
David Ragan Front Row Ford 139 laps
David Stremme Inception Toyota 101 laps
Casey Mears Germain Ford 91 laps
Josh Wise Front Row Ford 82 laps
Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 71 laps
Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet 68 laps
Michael McDowell Parsons Ford 63 laps
Scott Riggs R3 Chevrolet 32 laps
Kelly Bires Go Green Ford 19 laps
JJ Yeley Robinson-Blakeney Toyota 4 laps