HAMPTON - Four guys are in the Chase for the Championship. Ten others are sweating it out.
On to Richmond!
Kasey Kahne greatly improved his chances of making the season-ending Chase with a victory Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, pulling away from Kevin Harvick after a fortunate yellow flag late in the race.
Kahne leaped five spots in the Sprint Cup standings - from a tenuous 11th to more comfortable sixth - but he's not ready to count himself in just yet.
The 12-driver NASCAR playoff field will be finalized Saturday night at Richmond, and those are the only ones who'll have a shot at the Cup over the final 10 races.
So far, only Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have clinched a spot in the Chase. The next 10 spots are separated by a mere 122 points.
'It's going to be intense,' Kahne said. 'From fifth to 14th is going to be really intense at Richmond next week.'
Kevin Harvick, who won the Nationwide race at Atlanta, was in position for a weekend double until teammate Clint Bowyer spun with 15 laps to go, bringing out the final caution of the night. Kahne got Harvick on the restart and pulled away to an easy 1.766-second win.
Harvick knew he was in trouble as soon as the yellow flag came out. So did his crew chief, Gil Martin, who swung his arms in disgust when he saw Bowyer's car sliding through the grass in the trioval.
'We had a great car tonight,' Harvick said. 'I knew we were in trouble there at the end because it took our car 15 or 20 laps to get going.'
He held on for second, matching his best performance in a disappointing season. Juan Pablo Montoya finished third and solidified his odds of making the Chase for the first time.
'Kevin was the best on the long runs,' said Kahne, who picked up his second win of the year and 11th of his career. 'We just got them. We had a really good car for about 10 laps.'
Hamlin became the fourth driver to clinch a spot in the Chase with a sixth-place showing. Stewart, Gordon and Johnson were already in.
There was no change among the top 12, though there was some shuffling in their order. Stewart still leads the points after an 11th-place finish, followed by Gordon, Johnson, Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kahne, Kurt Busch, Montoya, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Brian Vickers will go to Richmond 20 points behind Kenseth, with Kyle Busch 37 points out of a return to the Chase.
Montoya, the former IndyCar champion and Formula One driver, is hoping to make it for the first time in his three-year NASCAR career. As soon as he climbed from his car, he searched out a computer to see where he was in the standings heading to Richmond.
'It just makes life easier,' Montoya said.
Harvick has no chance of winning a championship. He's 23rd in the points and has spent more time this season answering questions about his future with Richard Childress Racing.
'That's a long way from where we've been,' said Harvick, whose other runner-up finish this season came way back in February at the season-opening Daytona 500.
The first scheduled race under the lights at Atlanta and the new Labor Day weekend date was a big hit with the fans. An estimated 111,000 turned out on a warm night after years of declining attendance at the 1.54-mile track.
Johnson, trying to become the first driver in Cup history to win four straight championships, slipped from second to third in the standings after finishing 22 laps behind in 36th place.
He was running second when he lost control of his No. 48 car coming out of turn two. He managed to avoid the inside wall and get back to the pits for another set of tires, but the mishap knocked him all the way back to 19th.
Johnson was on the verge of getting back into the top 10 when a broken axle during a pit stop forced him back to the garage for repairs. With all chances of winning gone, he had to go back to the garage one more time to fix a balky gear box.
'We had trouble with the rear of the car,' Johnson said. 'It was just an unfortunate night for us.'
Edwards hobbled out to his car on crutches after breaking his right foot playing frisbee a few days earlier. His pedal foot didn't give him any problem, but his race was ruined by a hole in his radiator. He had to go to the garage for lengthy repairs and wound up just behind Johnson in 37th.
Edwards won this race a year ago, one of nine victories on his way to a second-place finish in the season standings. He has yet to win this year but maybe that's for the best - there's no way he can do his customary victory celebration, a backflip off his No. 99 car with his ailing foot.