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NASCAR Barometer: Kahne Wins, He's In

C.J. Radune

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Kasey Kahne took NASCAR's new "win an get in" format to heart and put his team into the Chase by speeding to victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The No. 5 was outshined much of the race by Kevin Harvick as the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing driver dominated the vast majority of Sunday's race. Kahne pieced together a fast setup and top pit stops to put him in position to take advantage of restarts, though. Those efforts rewarded him with the lead and track position to claim victory and a spot in the Chase.

Atlanta's heat and slippery track forced a number of surprises, not least of which was Harvick's inability to score the win. In addition to that shocker, Danica Patrick saw her best finish. Aric Almirola bucked his backward slide with his first top-10 finish since winning earlier this year, and Kyle Busch found himself in the wall and out of contention yet again. All of Sunday's action promises to build to an even bigger crescendo when the series looks ahead to Richmond next weekend, the final regular-season chance for drivers to book their spot in the Chase for the Championship.

UPGRADE

Kasey Kahne -
The No. 5 team gave its driver everything he needed to have the best car at the perfect time Sunday night. After a late caution period Kahne found himself in the lead and holding off the dominant Harvick. Once in the lead Kahne used the track position to his advantage to force Harvick to take a slower line and grow the gap in traffic. From there, the No. 5 was able to avoid the traffic problems that took out competitors and beat Kenseth to the checkered flag. Kahne also has a win at Richmond, and with four top-5s and seven top-10s his average finish at the track is 17.8, but his spot in the Chase is now secure.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick has barely finished outside of the top 10 since finishing 30th in July's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He got off to an excellent start Sunday in Atlanta too, starting form pole and jumping out to an immediate lead. He dominated the majority of Sunday's race until a late restart caught him behind Paul Menard and was sandwiched between slower cars and the wall. Damage to Harvick's car sent him behind the wall with just a few laps remaining, a bitter end to such a dominant performance. His three Richmond wins help his average finish at next week's track to be 11.3, an incredible average from 27 starts, and he will try to regain his momentum next week.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin was the first competitor able to break Harvick's death grip on the lead of Sunday's race, beating the No. 4 team to pit exit under caution. He was also able to keep his car near the point of the field after getting passed, though. After starting 17th he was able to climb up the order and hold station to claim another top-5. The finish is Hamlin's third top-10 finish in the last five races, which is a definite turnaround from earlier in the season. The team is building momentum at the right time. Hamlin's two wins, seven top-5s, and nine Richmond top-10s give him an impressive average finish of 9.8 at the short bullring.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth had a strong car in practice and qualifying, starting inside the top 10 for Sunday's race. Since he hasn't been qualifying consistently this season the start up front Sunday night was a bonus. The team worked on the car's handling all evening and put together their strongest package with just 100 laps remaining to take the lead. The effort was just a little short and Kahne ultimately took the victory, though. Still, the strong effort locked Kenseth into the Chase, which was the most important goal. Kenseth has a Richmond win from 2002, and has finished inside the top 10 there in each of the last four races, capturing a pole as well. His average Richmond finish is 15.4.

Greg Biffle -
Being on the bubble to make the Chase with just two races before the cutoff added plenty of pressure to a team that has struggled until recently. Biffle started mid-pack, and an ill-handling chassis dropped him deeper in the running relatively early in Sunday's Oral-B USA 500. Biffle was one of the handful of drivers needing to come through Atlanta's race with a solid points outing, but he slid out of the top 20 runners only to persevere and work his way back to the top 10. Biffle has never won at Richmond and only has an average finish of 16.9 at the track from 24 starts. With just six top-10s there, the job to get a spot in the Chase looks better after working hard to recover Sunday.

DOWNGRADE

Jeff Gordon -
For the second week in a row Gordon had problems early. A tire issue forced him to climb Atlanta's banking and smack the wall with his right side, returning to action two laps behind the leaders. Gordon was one of the favorites to take Sunday's win, but he was put behind the pace early with that issue and was never able to recover. The NO. 24 ended the night in 17th position. Gordon has two past wins at Richmond, and doesn't need to worry about making the Chase. The team will be hopeful of turning in a solid and trouble-free performance next week in order to get all of the kinks out before the 10 most important races of the year.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer endured another race with terrible luck on Sunday when all he needed was an issue-free night with a decent finish. The gear shifter inside the car broke and the team was forced to take it to the garage to make the repair. By the time he returned to the track he was more than 20 laps down in 42nd position. His status in the Chase field is now in question, and a strong night in Richmond is a necessity for playoff hopes. Bowyer has won twice at the short track, though. His luck will need to be better this week as he looks to add to his record of nine top-10s in 17 Richmond starts. He needs to overcome a 23-point gap to make the Chase.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski turned in all the right moves until just a handful of laps remained in Sunday's Oral-B USA 500. He was racing within the top 10, and looked as though he could have even threatened for the win. Instead, he was the victim of an accordion effect when Matt Kenseth slowed to enter pit road. The back up of cars caught Keselowski with nowhere to go and damaged his front fender by running into the back of another car. Keselowski is continuing to search for a way to bring some Penske Racing momentum back to his favor. He has just one top-5 at Richmond, but would like to improve on that to get the Chase started off on a high note.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart had not raced in Atlanta for two years before Sunday, and hadn't been in his car since Watkins Glen. The team owner started Sunday's race like he had pent up spend that he needed to vent. The No. 14 shot forward in the order and set chase after employee Harvick. His early race speed was thwarted by contact with Kyle Busch and the wall, though. Stewart made a number of stops under caution to fix the damage, but succumbed to a blown tire that completed the car's demolition later in the running. Stewart must win next week if he wants a spot in the Chase. He has won three times at Richmond in 30 tries, and carries an average result of 11.1 at the track as well.

Marcos Ambrose -
The high speed and lack of grip at Atlanta were just too much for Ambrose's No. 9. The Australian's engine gave up before the race was even halfway done, leaving a serious oil slick on the tarmac. Ambrose is another driver that needed to find a victory, and probably feels like Watkins Glen could have been his best chance. The veteran driver has continued to take strides forward on ovals, though. He was classified in the 42nd position Sunday, and now needs to win at Richmond. He will need to outperform his Richmond resume to get the job done. With just two top-10 finishes in 11 tries the picture of Ambrose in this year's Chase doesn't appear likely.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Danica Patrick -
Patrick pieced together her strongest finish since joining the Sprint Cup Series. She raced from the 27th starting position all the way up to the top 10, and came home with a sixth-place finish. She credited her team with fast work on her final pit stop that enabled her to retain top track position and hold station for a top effort. She admitted that he hasn't traditionally run well at Richmond, and her average finish of 31st with no top finishes from three tries underscores that statement. She will need to win to make it into the season-ending Chase, which would be a big surprise, but she can take heart that she has improved her racing this season.

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