With just 89 points separating seventh through 14th in the points and two races remaining before the Chase field is set, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' 43 best drivers prepared for a clash in Atlanta for the Pep Boys Auto Parts 500.
Martin Truex, Jr. won his second pole of 2009 with a speed of 184.149 and Kasey Kahne led the field to the green flag at 7:49 local time.
Truex, Jr. jumped out to an early lead while Kahne battled side by side with Johnson before pulling away. On the outside, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge of Kurt Busch tried to make a move on the No. 48.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who started 22nd, wasted little time in his quest to pick up positions, making it three wide on lap four with Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip. Four laps later he split the cars of David Gilliland and David Ragan to move to the 17th position.
The No. 44 of A.J. Allmendinger was also making headway threw the pack, gaining ten spots to 25th in the first 10 laps of the race.
By lap 21, the leader Truex, Jr. began looking like Kevin Harvick did in Saturday night's Nationwide event, pulling out to an over eight second lead over second place Kahne.
"Whatever you've done, you've flipped the switch to pull away, nice job," he told crew chief Kevin Manion.
Clint Bowyer was on the other end of the spectrum; the No. 33 Cheerios Chevrolet dropped from it's 20th place starting spot to 37th and off the lead lap in 32 laps.
The day's first caution came out on lap 37 when Sam Hornish, Jr. went sliding into the infield. Chase hopeful Matt Kenseth was the recipient of the lucky dog after being lapped just before Hornish's spin.
"On lap five or six, I drove into (turn) one, and that time it didn't hit the splitter. Frickin turned sideways & pasted fence," Kenseth told his crew. The damage to the side of his car caused him to lose a lap.
The leaders hit pit road a lap later, with Kahne beating Truex, Jr. off pit road. Gordon, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Vickers, Martin, Kurt Busch, and Montoya rounded out the top ten.
On lap 42 Kahne, choosing the outside lane, led the field to the green but was quickly passed by Truex as Johnson and Busch battled two behind him for position. Kahne's own side by side battle with Gordon, which he lost on lap 43, allowed Truex, Jr. to pull out to a substantial lead once again.
Third, fourth and fifth went three wide as Busch passed the Hendrick teammates of Gordon and Johnson on lap 44.
On lap 60, Gordon had slipped back to 15th saying he couldn't "believe it can be this bad."
The No. 77 Mobil One Dodge of Hornish, Jr. once again spun in the infield bringing out the day's second caution on lap 61. Part of his tire was also on track. Scott Speed was the lucky dog.
The leaders once again came down pit road the following lap, with Kyle Busch winning that battle off of pit road. Truex, Kahne, Johnson, Hamlin, Martin, Kurt Busch, Reed Sorenson, and Carl Edwards made up the top ten.
Choosing the inside lane, Busch led the field to the restart on lap 65. While Hamlin, Kahne and Johnson went three wide behind him, Busch was able to pull away from Truex, Jr. and the rest of the field.
Johnson made a challenge for the lead on lap 72, trying to make a move to the outside. He was able to lead lap 73, and completed the pass as the two entered turn two.
On lap 83 the night's third caution came out when the No. 99 of Edwards had a hole in the oil pan, dropping oil on track and on pit road. Edwards, who broke his foot Wednesday playing Frisbee, was running a special paint scheme created by a 13 year old cancer patient.
Clint Bowyer was the recipient of the lucky dog, and the leaders came down pit road on lap 84. Another lead change as Kyle Busch once again won the race off pit road. Johnson, Truex, Hamlin, Stewart, Kahne, Busch, Montoya, and Gordon won the race off pit road. During the caution, Kenseth stayed out an extra lap to gain five bonus points.
Again on the inside, Busch led the field to the green on lap 87. Johnson began falling back as Truex made a pass for second. His teammate Gordon, meanwhile, made a pass for fith on lap 90, working his way back up.
In his first Atlanta start, rookie Joey Logano was having a strong top twenty run, running 18th on lap 92. The last caution's lucky dog Bowyer ran 29th.
Truex, Jr. once again took the lead on lap 98, when he dove to the inside of the Kyle Busch. Meanwhile, Johnson made a challenge for second.
Sorenson, Montoya, Harvick, Kurt Busch, and Brian Vickers had their own battled, all racing for spots ninth threw 12th. On lap 104 Montoya made it three wide, passing Harvick and Vickers in the middle.
Caution came out that same night for Max Papis in the No. 13 Geico Toyota, who made heavy contact with the wall. Kyle Busch once again won the race off pit road, leading Truex, Johnson, Hamlin, and Stewart. Gordon, Kurt Busch, Martin, Vickers, and David Stremme rounded out that round's top ten. Robby Gordon was awarded the free pass.
Michael Waltrip stayed out to lead a lap, but it was Busch who once again led the field to the green flag on lap 110. He chose the outside line, and teammate Hamlin rocketed past Truex, Jr. to get on the rear bumper of his teammate.
Getting the No. 18 loose, Hamlin made a pass for the lead as the two entered turn four, and completed the pass before they hit the start finish line.
Truex continued to lose spots, being passed by the Hendrick cars of Gordon and Johnson on lap 116. After making the pass on Truex, Jr., Johnson passed the No. 24 and began to pull away.
On lap 117 the No. 33 of Bowyer reported a loose wheel to his team and came down pit road. He would lose a lap to the leaders.
Johnson began looking to challenge for the lead, taking the lead on lap 128. He was quick to pull out to over a second lead.
The lead quickly evaporated, though, when a debris caution came out on lap 131. Jeff Burton, who had fallen back to 29th also had problems and made a pit stop.
Gordon was the winner on pit road followed by Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Johnson, Stewart, Montoya, Kurt Busch, Logano, Vickers, Martin. Elliot Sadler was the lucky dog.
On the outside, Gordon led the field to the restart on lap 136, but was met with a side by side battle with Hamlin before Hamlin took the lead. The top 10 became single file until rookie Logano and Montoya began racing side by side for sixth.
Gordon made a pass for the lead on lap 140, but Hamlin wasn't far behind.
Harvick, meanwhile, had an angry exchange with his pit crew after losing six spots on pit road as he raced Newman for 14th.
"I can't even get excited about coming on pit road. Definitely can't win a race like this. I guess I'm talking to myself!" he screamed over his radio. He was calmed by crew chief Gil Martin, who told him the team would "get our (expletive) together."
Martin's driver wasted little time on track, racing his way to 10th by lap 154 after the lap 136 restart.
The No. 42 of Montoya also continued making up ground, as he ran fourth on lap 149. The EGR Chevrolet was the same car the team ran in their dominant Brickyard 400 performance in July.
While Earnhardt, Jr. made a pass on teammate Johnson up ahead, Harvick blazed past cars left and right, running third and quickly gaining on second place Hamlin on lap 164. Both Hamlin and Harvick were both making their way toward the leader Gordon.
Hamlin took the lead on lap 167 but Harvick never let the No. 11 or No. 24 out of his sight, racing Gordon side by side before pulling out alongside Hamlin.
Harvick took the lead and instantly pulled away from the field on lap 169, leaving Gordon and Hamlin to battled for second. Brian Vickers advanced to second on lap 171.
Sideways, defending points leader Johnson struggled to hold on to his car, losing tenth place to Stremme on lap 172.
Green flag pit stops began on lap 185 when Sorenson and the No. 16 of Greg Biffle came in. A struggling Truex, Jr. came in on the following lap along with Logano, Kenseth and Stewart.
Kyle Busch came in on lap 188. Newman and Kahne also made their pit stops. The following lap teammates Gordon, Johnson and Martin came in. Smoking his tires, the leader Harvick pitted on lap 190 along with Hamlin, Ragan and Gilliland. That handed the lead to Vickers, who made his stop on lap 191.
Stops cycled through on lap 192, with Harvick leading Earnhardt, Jr., Hamlin, Vickers, and Kahne. Ragan and Burton both served pit road penalties.
Hamlin quickly made his way past the No. 88 and began hunting down the No. 29. However, Harvick had a 5.6 second lead, and showed no signs of slowing down.
The sixth caution of the night came out for the No. 48 of Johnson, who had battled loose conditions throughout the race. He spun all by himself and avoided contact. Chase hopeful Greg Biffle was the lucky dog.
Harvick just barely won the race off pit road, followed by Hamlin, Earnhardt, Jr. , Kahne, Vickers, Gordon, Martin, Kenseth, and Stremme.
Points leader Tony Stewart had problems on his pit stop, leaving a lugnut off. He restarted 20th.
Newman stayed out to lead a lap under that caution, but it Harvick who led the field to the green on the outside on lap 208. Hamlin spun the tires and fell into a side by side battle with Kahne, who jumped the lead after going on the outside of Harvick.
Harvick fell to third on lap 209 when Gordon passed him, while Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Vickers and Martin battled for sixth through ninth.
The No. 29 Shell Penzoil Chevrolet continued his decline, falling to fifth by lap 212. However, by 218 he made his way back up to third, and passed Hamlin for second two laps later.
Kahne had built his lead to over two seconds while the Hendrick teammates of Earnhardt, Jr., Martin and Gordon battled for fourth, fifth and sixth.
On lap 225 Harvick caught Kahne was hot on his trail, racing him side by side for the lead to no avail. Happy Harvick was able to complete the pass on lap 231.
Tony Stewart was put a lap down on lap 240 after his pit road misfortune. Harvick led Kahne by nearly two seconds, while a fast No 42 Target Chevrolet continued making strides in third place, three seconds back.
Caution once again came out on lap 245, when Kurt Busch made heavy contact with the wall, collecting the No. 43 of Sorenson as he spun.
"Tore up the entire car," Sorenson told his crew as he came down pit road.
Harvick lost three spots on pit road after left rear tire problems, with Kahne winning the race off pit road. Biffle stayed out under that caution to lead a lap before coming down pit road.
Defending points champion Johnson also had problems, breaking an axel on pit road and went to the garage. Bubble driver Vickers also had axel issues, but managed to stay on the lead lap.
Kahne on the outside led the field to the green with 73 laps to go, as Montoya and Harvick challenged him for the lead. Kenseth, on the outside, passed martin and then Gordon to enter the top five. At his lowest point, he was 31st and even received the lucky dog earlier in the race.
Robby Gordon, Logano and Stewart raced three wide for 13th. Behind them, Bobby Labonte ran in 15th after losing his No. 96 ride for seven races to Erik Darnell. Up front, Montoya passed Harvick for second.
Johnson, who thought his axel problem was fixed, returned to the garage to change the gear in his Lowe's Chevrolet.
With 87 laps to go Logano went spinning after losing a tire, bringing out the night's ninth caution and putting Tony Stewart back on the lead lap. Twenty cars sat on the lead lap.
Kahne led the leaders down pit road, and won the race off pit road leading Harvick, Martin, Montoya, Hamlin, Reutimann, Busch, Stremme Kenseth and Labonte. Johnson also returned to the track after fixing his gear issue, 22 laps down. He would end the day 36th.
The green flag waved on lap 273 with Kahne leading the way as Montoya and Harvick battled behind him for second. After Montoya cleared the No. 29, Harvick began slipping back. Labonte and Stremme got extremely loose battling for eighth.
With 50 laps to go Montoya powered by Kahne for the lead, taking the lead for the first time.
After having axel problems on pit road, Vickers ran 12th with 46 laps to go, keeping his Chase dreams alive.
Harvick began challenging Hamlin for fourth on lap 288 after passing Martin while Montoya, who was good to go on fuel, padded his two second lead over Kahne. The No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was keeping a close eye on his temperature as he passed Hamlin.
With just under thirty laps to go Harvick passed Kahne for second, beating Montoya by seven tenths as he made his way back toward the lead. Further back, Martin passed Hamlin for fifth and Robby Gordon battled back and forth with Biffle for 11th.
With 22 laps to go Harvick began a hard charge for the lead, running right on Montoya's back bumper. The two ran side by side with 21 to go, clearing him and began building a large lead over Montoya.
Bowyer's struggles continued as he spun into the infield grass after losing a tire. It brought out the night's ninth caution of the night, and erasing the 1.6 second lead his teammate held over the field. Kyle Busch, who had just been lapped by Harvick, was put back on the lead lap.
Harvick led the leaders down pit road, as he won the race off pit road leading Kahne, Reutimann, Montoya, Hamlin, Martin, Kenseth, Biffle, Vickers and Earnhardt, Jr.
Just eleven laps remained when Harvick led the field on the outside to the green, battling side by side with Kahne as they headed toward the start finish line, with Kahne taking the lead.
Martin and Kenseth, meanwhile, battled for sixth side by side while Hamlin and Reutimann battled just in front of them. For ninth, Jeff Gordon battled to keep Biffle behind him while chasing down Kenseth.
Kahne put a second and a half between he and Harvick as he hit the start finish line with six laps to go. Three wide for position as Kyle Busch took 13th from Stremme and Earnhardt, Jr.
After breaking a 73 race winless streak earlier this season in Sonoma, Kasey Kahne won the first Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Harvick, Montoya, Reutimann, Martin, Hamlin, Vickers, Gordon, Newman and Biffle rounded out the top ten. Stewart rebounded from his earlier pit road issues to finish 11th.
"Well this is a big win, we thank the Lord for making us smart enough to make the right decisions," team director Kenny Francis said. "It was just the perfect night for us."
"This is big for everyone on our Shell Pennzoil Chevrolet," second place Harvick said. "Were were good on long runs but, congratulations to Kasey, they were a lot better on short runs and it just came down to a short run tonight."
"It was awesome, I thought I was going to get him but I just got freakin' sideways down in three," Montoya, who finished third, said. "Everyone on the Target Chevrolet did good today. Everyone's working so hard to make this happen. And with this third place, it makes it a little closer to this Chase."
For the second time this season, Kasey Kahne put The King's car in Victory Lane.
"We had an unbelievable car throughout the race. This pit crew did a phenomenal job this whole night," Kahne said. "This team did a great job. I knew Harvick and Montoya were going to be though there at the end, but we just got them there... we just had a little better car for ten laps."
Kahne gained five spots in points to sixth while Denny Hamlin locked himself into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Next week it's Saturday night racing under the lights as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads into Richmond International Raceway for the Chevy Rock 'n Roll 400. The race begins at 7 p.m. ET on ABC.
This article also appears on SoCalSportsHub.com.