The cutoff to get into NASCAR's 2014 Chase for The Sprint Cup is looming next week. Sunday's Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway marked the penultimate race before the final 16 in the Chase grid is set.
With so many drivers jockeying for Chase positioning and others seeking a last-minute entry, Kasey Kahne raced to Victory Lane for his first win of the season, qualifying him for the Chase.
Hendrick Motorsports was thrilled for Kahne, a driver who had just two top-five finishes in 2014 before Sunday and had been overshadowed by teammates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson:
"Welcome to the Chase, baby! Nice job!" pic.twitter.com/tMOcF5hboR— Hendrick Motorsports (@TeamHendrick) September 1, 2014
Only three laps remained when Martin Truex Jr. was hit from the rear by Kyle Busch, just as it appeared Kahne would hold off pole winner Kevin Harvick in a thrilling duel for the win.
Truex was miffed about what happened, per NASCAR on ESPN:
NASCAR noted how dominant pole winner Harvick was throughout the evening:
Bad news for @KevinHarvick who has led a race-high 195 laps tonight.— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 1, 2014
Right on the next restart, Harvick careened into the wall and undid a phenomenal overall effort. Meanwhile, Kahne managed to fight his way back into the front, passing Matt Kenseth just ahead of the final lap and denying Kenseth of his first win of the year.
Here is a look at the top finishers from Atlanta and the updated Chase grid after Sunday's showcase, courtesy of NASCAR.com:
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||851||3|
NASCAR Stats noted that Kenseth could take some solace in the fact that he made the Chase despite yet another close call:
A major storyline entering this race was Tony Stewart's return to competition for the first time since his involvement in an accident that took the life of driver Kevin Ward Jr.
Stewart, who started 12th, was in decent position until his night was derailed by a blown tire. Now he will need a win next week to have any hope of getting into the Chase.
Just before he left, the veteran driver expressed his dismay to his crew, per FoxSports.com's Tom Jensen:
Harvick, who won the NASCAR Nationwide Series in Atlanta on Saturday, was doing his best to deny Kenseth a maiden 2014 win. The two had changed leads more than once before Sunday's race entered the home stretch:
Just as he did on Saturday, though, Harvick made the race rather uninteresting to a degree with how often he was out in front of the pack.
Former NASCAR star and Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip praised Harvick's ability behind the wheel:
You watch @KevinHarvick, the car looks like it's handling perfectly, until you go inside and see how hard he's working!— Darrell Waltrip (@AllWaltrip) September 1, 2014
Jay W. Pennell of Fox Sports noted the chain of events that unfolded late and had a massive impact on the race, as Brad Keselowski brought about a late-race yellow flag:
Keselowski was in third before he went into the wall and had to pull his car out of the race.
Most impressive was that Harvick repeatedly lost the lead during pit stops amid the myriad of cautions that came about on Sunday, yet somehow found a way to return to first each time. That is, until the final one, when Kahne overtook him and eventually vaulted himself into the Chase.
Kahne was thankful for the work his crew did amid plenty of uncertainty, as they were all in a virtual must-win situation:
Kasey: "We were kind of all over the place during the race. The guys stayed with me and worked hard. ... Really happy."— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) September 1, 2014
There is clearly something about Atlanta Harvick likes, and although he fell short Sunday in such disappointing fashion, the upcoming NASCAR venue also plays into his capable hands.
On the schedule next is the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Speedway. It marks the final hope for Chase-aspiring drivers to qualify for a run at NASCAR's championship. A victory will be required for those well back in the driver point standings, while all of the other top stars will be vying to improve their spots on the grid.
Which past two-time winner will finish best in Richmond?
But with the way Kahne burst onto the scene Sunday, it seems anything can happen.
The top 16 are guaranteed spots in the three races after Richmond, where the top 12 will move on in a continued pursuit of the top prize in stock car auto racing.
|Saturday, September 6||7:30 p.m. ET||Federated Auto Parts 400||ABC|
|Sunday, September 14||2 p.m. ET||MyAfibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland||ESPN|
|Sunday, September 21||2 p.m. ET||Sylvania 300||ESPN|
|Sunday, September 28||2 p.m. ET||AAA 400||ESPN|
|Sunday, October 5||2 p.m. ET||Hollywood Casino 400||ESPN|
|Saturday, October 11||7:30 p.m. ET||Bank of America 500||ABC|
|Sunday, October 19||2 p.m. ET||Geico 500||ESPN|
|Sunday, October 26||1:30 p.m. ET||Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500||ESPN|
|Sunday, November 2||3 p.m. ET||AAA Texas 500||ESPN|
|Sunday, November 9||3 p.m. ET||Quicken Loans Race For Heroes 500||ESPN|
|Sunday, November 16||3 p.m. ET||Ford EcoBoost 400||ESPN|
With plenty of star power already in the Chase field and a revamped format, the conclusion to the 2014 NASCAR season promises to be among the best in recent memory.