Kasey Kahne scored his second victory of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway and edged closer to securing his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which starts in two weeks.
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver made the most of his pace in the short runs to pass Kevin Harvick on the final restart with 11 laps to go and pull off to a commanding win that allowed him to jump from 11th up to sixth in the drivers standings, with only one race left before the 12 title contenders are set for the series' playoff.
Kahne had led the race for brief periods before the final sprint, but he had struggled to keep his pace up front on the long runs. Harvick had exactly the opposite situation, looking the fastest on the long green-flag stretches, along with Earnhardt Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya.
Harvick was leading with a comfortable margin before his Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer spun out of Turn Four, causing the ninth and final caution of the race with 17 laps remaining. With tire drop-off being considerable through the race, all the leaders pitted for a new set of Goodyears.
Out of the pits Harvick was able to stay in the lead, with Kahne moving up from third to second place ahead of David Reutimann, while Montoya dropped from second to fourth for the final restart of the race.
Two laps after the green flag waved for the last time, Kahne passed the leader on the outside in a replay of what had happened on a previous restart following the sixth caution of the race. But with only nine laps to go, there was not enough racing left for Harvick this time to get his pace back and challenge Kahne's increasingly loose car in the end.
"Harvick was best on the long run, but when we got that last caution and the restart with 11 to go, I knew we had a shot at the victory," said Kahne. "It's all about making the Chase. That certainly put us in a better position going to Richmond.
"I knew Harvick and [Juan Pablo] Montoya were going to be tough. I hadn't gotten through the gears all night and [David] Reutimann gave me a push on the front stretch and got me going. It was a great win for Richard Petty Motorsports and the team."
Harvick led a total of 66 laps during the night, only two less than early race leader and pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. The RCR driver ended up fending off the other Earnhardt Ganassi car of Montoya in the closing laps, getting a second place finish which matched his best result of the season to bring some confidence back into a team that has endured their toughest season yet.
"I knew we were in trouble when that caution came out," said Harvick, who recently announced he is set to stay with RCR in 2010. "The circumstances didn't play in our favor there at the end, but we led a bunch of laps and with the year that we've had this is a great night for us. We were just a little bit short."
"We had a great car on the long runs. Congratulations to Kasey [Kahne]. They were a lot better on the short runs. It just came down to the short run tonight."
Montoya was a contender for victory again, taking the lead from Kahne with 55 laps remaining. He led for 30 laps before Harvick passed him with only 20 to go. Then on his last stop he dropped to fourth, as his mechanics took longer than rival teams to perform the final four-tyre change. His third place in the end though, allowed him to move up one spot in the standing and closer to his goal of making the Chase.
"I thought I was going to get [Harvick] with two to go, but I got freaking sideways down in [turn] Three." said Montoya. "I knew we were in trouble there at the end because it took our car 15 or 20 laps to get going. But, hey, that's a long ways from where we've been. We led a bunch of laps tonight, something we haven't been able to do in a while. I'm happy.
"Obviously, you want to go out and win. But from where we've been this year, I think tonight feels like a win. We'll just take this momentum and hopefully keep it going."
Reutimann was an impressive fourth, while Mark Martin had a quiet day on his way to fifth. Denny Hamlin was also a challenger at the front at some point, finishing sixth in the end and clinching his spot in the Chase for the fourth year in a row.
Brian Vickers passed Kyle Busch in the standing moving to 13th place in the championship thanks to a seventh place at the flag, and he is now only 20 points off from Matt Kenseth's 12th position in the standings. Busch struggled for balance in the closing stages of the race and is now in clear danger of missing this year's Chase.
Kenseth's race was one of recovery after hitting the wall in the early going. He was able to fight back to finish 12th in what was a bad day for his squad as Carl Edwards had a lengthy visit to the garage due to an oil leak and their teammate Greg Biffle finished 10th, but dropped three places to 11th in the points' battle.
Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson had a rough day despite leading the race for 17 laps. A transmission problem was discovered in his car late in the race after the Hendrick driver complained repeatedly of an ill-handling Chevy. Two lengthy visits to the garage to attempt fixing the problem, cost him 22 laps with the leader.
Kurt Busch also had a tough day in the office crashing out of the event and losing one place in the championship.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Kasey Kahne Dodge 325
2. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 325
3. Juan Pablo Montoya Chevrolet 325
4. David Reutimann Toyota 325
5. Mark Martin Chevrolet 325
6. Denny Hamlin Toyota 325
7. Brian Vickers Toyota 325
8. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 325
9. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 325
10. Greg Biffle Ford 325
11. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 325
12. Matt Kenseth Ford 325
13. Kyle Busch Toyota 325
14. David Stremme Dodge 325
15. Paul Menard Ford 325
16. Robby Gordon Toyota 325
17. Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet 325
18. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 325
19. David Gilliland Ford 325
20. A.J. Allmendinger Dodge 325
21. Elliott Sadler Dodge 325
22. Joey Logano Toyota 324
23. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 324
24. Scott Speed Toyota 324
25. Casey Mears Chevrolet 324
26. Martin Truex Jr. Chevrolet 324
27. Reed Sorenson Dodge 324
28. Jamie McMurray Ford 323
29. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 323
30. Erik Darnell Ford 323
31. John Andretti Chevrolet 323
32. Michael Waltrip Toyota 323
33. David Ragan Ford 322
34. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 322
35. Sam Hornish Jr. Dodge 320
36. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 303
37. Carl Edwards Ford 302
38. Kurt Busch Dodge 244
39. Terry Labonte Toyota 148
40. Massimiliano Papis Toyota 100
41. Mike Bliss Dodge 38
42. Joe Nemechek Toyota 25
43. Dave Blaney Toyota 19