For Kasey Kahne, the pressure grew as he feared he would be the only driver on the team left out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
That changed when Kahne earned his spot in the Chase by charging 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.
“That was just an unbelievable way to make the Chase,” Kahne said.
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.
After Atlanta, this week’s race at Richmond would have been Kahne’s final chance to earn his spot in the Chase.
“It was all I could think about,” Kahne said. “I knew Atlanta was a better opportunity for myself than going out to Richmond. I just knew that (Sunday) we needed it.”
Rick Hendrick beamed after the race as he talked about his team’s chances in the Chase. Gordon, who finished 17th, still leads the points race. Earnhardt, who was 11th, is second. Johnson, who finished fourth in Atlanta, is sixth.
“I think we’ve got better balance this year than we’ve had in the past,” Hendrick said.
Johnson, Earnhardt and Gordon celebrated with Kahne on the victory stand.
“I looked up and saw them all standing there and I was really proud of the organization when I saw that happen,” Hendrick said.
It was Kahne’s first win of the season and his third career victory in Atlanta.
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.
Hamlin was third, followed by Johnson, Carl Edwards and Danica Patrick.
Patrick’s sixth-place finish was the best of her career, the highest for a woman at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the second-highest for a female in NASCAR history. Sarah Christian finished fifth in a Sprint Cup race in 1949 at Heidelberg (Pa.) Raceway.
It was Stewart’s first race since the 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.
Harvick, who also won the Nationwide Series race Saturday night, started from the pole and led the first 80 laps, but was denied his attempt for a weekend sweep.
Brad Keselowski was fourth when a collision with Josh Wise ended his night with 28 laps remaining.
Ty Dillon, making his Sprint Cup debut, finished 25th.
Harvick had a scare early in the race when a small animal ran across the track in front of his car. He told his crew a cat ran across the track, but later it was discovered to be a squirrel, which was found hiding near turn 3.