Kasey Kahne claimed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win of the season by fending off Tony Stewart in the closing laps at Sonoma.
Kahne, not one of NASCAR's road course specialists, had a 23rd place finish as his best ever result at the track coming into the weekend, and despite being on pole position a year ago he was not considered among the likely candidates for victory. However he ran strongly all day following his fifth place in qualifying, which translated into third when the green flag waved after Marcos Ambrose dropped to the back of the field due to his engine change.
Kahne claimed the lead for the first time on lap 30 when those ahead of him pitted for fuel for the first time and then reclaimed it later following the last round of stops, emerging ahead of Stewart who had looked the driver to beat up to that point.
The championship leader tried to put pressure on the Richard Petty Motorsports driver but he was unable even to put a fender on the inside of Kahne at any point - despite four caution periods in the last 30 laps, which included the additional challenge of double-file restarts.
Kahne chose the outside lane on every restart and made it work for him, keeping Stewart at bay. Following the last caution, which caused a green-white-checkered finish, Kahne was perfect off the line and remained in control to score his first win on a road course. His victory was also the first for Richard Petty since Petty Enterprises won with John Andretti in 1999 at Martinsville.
"It's crazy – we qualified well here the last couple of years and it feels good to qualify well, run out front and hold off Tony Stewart, that's awesome," Kahne said. "Tony is as good as it gets on any type of track and we were able to go hard with our car. It's unbelievable to win here. To win any race and to win at a road course for me is crazy."
Stewart looked to be on his way to an emphatic win in the middle part of the race, while running longer than Kahne before his last stop. However his strategy put him behind his main rival once he pitted for the last time on lap 75, although given the speed he had shown while leading, he was expected to put up a strong challenge to Kahne. However his restarts, which were his only chance to retake the lead, were not as good as those of his main rival.
"I wasn't waiting for anything but [Kahne] made one mistake and we closed in on him and we couldn't do anything when we got there," said Stewart. "He never made a mistake. That one time in the last 16 or 17 laps he made one mistake and on a road course where you have 11 corners to only make one mistake like that he did an awesome job.
"The second to the last run there, we were looking in our mirror there, we were fast but Kasey was matching us lap for lap. When he came out in front of us from that last set of pit stops, I was like, 'Oh, we might be in trouble here'. We could run about the same pace, but I was just a little too loose in the right-handers."
Ambrose made a great recovery from the back of the field to finish in a strong third place, although he did not have anything for the leading pair in the end. His team adapted his strategy to his low starting position, and the former V8 Supercar champion had the pace to make the most of it and move to the front.
"We ran a lot of fuel today trying to set ourselves up to pass cars, and we didn't have the fuel mileage that many others had," said Ambrose. "So we knew we couldn't do it just on stretching fuel mileage, so we had to do it on speed. "So just getting clean air, staying out of all that riff raff I think at least got us to lap 70 before we really got back in the pack again, and I think that helped."
Jimmie Johnson recovered from a pitroad penalty early on to finish fourth, running an aggressive race which included contact with Kurt Busch while fighting for fourth place with 21 laps to go.
Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five, running on a different pit sequence to Kahne. The Gibbs driver was among a number of cars who pitted for fuel and tires on the first caution of the day and he benefited from further caution periods to stretch his fuel mileage enough to avoid the need for a third stop, which had looked on the cards for a while.
Juan Pablo Montoya ran a conservative race to finish sixth and moved back into the top twelve in the championship as some of those previously ahead of him in the standings - like Jeff Burton and David Reutimann - had trouble during the day. AJ Allmendinger, who was a lap down at one point, came back strongly to finished seventh.
Jeff Gordon had a pit road penalty early on but recovered well to finish ninth with a unique strategy that included more pit stops than any of his rivals did. He is now 84 points behind Stewart in the drivers' standing. His teammate Mark Martin did not have the greatest return to road course racing, finishing 35th after being involved in an incident on the penultimate lap.
Last year's winner Kyle Busch, who looked strong in the early going, was also among those having an unfortunate Sunday, following an incident with Sam Hornish Jr after he outbraked himself into Turn 7. He had yet another incident afterwards, but despite that and a badly damaged car he finished 22nd.RESULTS:
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Kasey Kahne Dodge 113
2. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 113
3. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 113
4. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 113
5. Denny Hamlin Toyota 113
6. Juan Pablo Montoya Chevrolet 113
7. AJ Allmendinger Dodge 113
8. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 113
9. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 113
10. Elliott Sadler Dodge 113
11. Patrick Carpentier Toyota 113
12. Max Papis Toyota 113
13. Carl Edwards Ford 113
14. Jamie McMurray Ford 113
15. Kurt Busch Dodge 113
16. Brian Vickers Toyota 113
17. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 113
18. Matt Kenseth Ford 113
19. Joey Logano Toyota 113
20. Bobby Labonte Ford 113
21. Paul Menard Ford 113
22. Kyle Busch Toyota 113
23. Casey Mears Chevrolet 113
24. Boris Said Ford 113
25. Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet 113
26. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 113
27. Ron Fellows Chevrolet 113
28. Greg Biffle Ford 113
29. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 113
30. John Andretti Chevrolet 113
31. David Reutimann Toyota 113
32. David Gilliland Chevrolet 113
33. David Ragan Ford 113
34. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 113
35. Mark Martin Chevrolet 113
36. Robby Gordon Toyota 113
37. Scott Speed Toyota 112
38. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 106
39. David Stremme Dodge 101
40. Reed Sorenson Dodge 99
41. Brandon Ash Dodge 94
42. Dave Blaney Toyota 3
43. PJ Jones Toyota 2