HAMPTON, Ga. – Kasey Kahne’s “downer” year received an important boost when he overcame his struggles with restarts with a big power move when he needed it the most.
Kahne charged past Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin in a two-lap shootout to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night.
Kahne’s first victory of the season earned him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I struggle with restarts a lot and that’s big,” Kahne said. “That’s one of the things you have to be good at. It worked really well tonight.”
Meanwhile, Tony Stewart’s much-anticipated return to racing ended a little more than halfway through the race.
Stewart hit the wall for the second time after his right front tire blew out on Lap 172, ending his night with a 41st-place finish.
Kahne took his third career win in Atlanta and his first win of the season.
“We’ve had kind of a downer year at times,” Kahne said.
Kenseth, who finished second, also qualified for the Chase on points. He began the second restart in first place, but couldn’t stop the charge from Kahne.
“I was able to get alongside him and get a good run down the back stretch,” Kenseth said. “… I got back to the gas as soon as I could. I just didn’t have enough muscle to clear him.”
Hamlin was third, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Danica Patrick.
It was Stewart’s first race since the sprint car he was driving struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. in an Aug. 9 race at a dirt track in upstate New York. The fatal wreck is still under investigation.
With only two laps remaining and Kahne holding a solid lead over Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch collided, forcing a caution flag and the first shootout. Harvick, who led 195 laps, had contact with Joey Logano in heavy traffic and hit the wall on the restart, bringing another caution flag and a second shootout.
Kahne, who had four fresh tires, started behind Kenseth and Hamlin on the final restart.
“I felt better about the first restart because the outside lane was really slick and I hardly spun the tires,” Kenseth said. “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.”
Harvick, who also won the Nationwide Series race on Saturday night, started from the pole and led the first 80 laps, but was denied his attempt for a weekend sweep.
Logano, who won last week at Bristol, finished 14th.