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Kasey Kahne's Atlanta win puts team owner Richard Petty ever closer to the championship chase

  Kasey Kahne (L) and team owner Richard Petty (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Richard Petty, as car owner, continues to provide surprises this season, and Sunday night it was with another win by Kasey Kahne….which puts Petty and Kahne a step closer to making the championship playoffs.
   Kahne was the upset winner at Sonoma in June, but here he clearly had one of the three strongest cars in the field all night, and he was by far the quickest on short sprints of 15 laps or less.
   So Petty, who won seven NASCAR championships himself as a driver, is now looking at contending for another championship, as team owner, with Kahne.
   "From fifth to 14th, it's going to be really intense at Richmond," Kahne said of the men battling to make the 12-man cut. He himself jumped up five spots to sixth with the victory, following a painful 28th place finish at Bristol three laps down.
   But there are still so many questions swirling around Richard Petty Motorsports, which has gone through a number of evolutions in recent years, from Ray Evernham's operation, to George Gillett's operation, and now to a Petty-Gillett operation that has four teams but still no Detroit manufacturer support lined up for 2010.
   Gillett had made moves toward switching to Toyotas for 2010, and Petty appeared a bit upset with Dodge at times over the summer.
   However Toyota racing boss Lee White says he expects Dodge's Mike Accavitti to make a big push to keep Petty in the Dodge camp.
   Kahne was impressive, and so was Kenny Francis' pit crew: "The pit stops were awesome," Kahne said.
   "But I've never seen a race here where so many leaders would get such a runaway lead…and then the next thing you know they're running way back," Petty said.
   That was tire falloff in speed, which seemed rather unpredictable.
   And the tires were so hard that drivers had a difficult time getting a hold on the track.
   "Kevin Harvick was best on the long run, but when we got that last caution and the restart with 11 to go, I knew we had a shot at the victory," Kahne said.
    But Kahne pointed out "It's all about making the chase. And this certainly put us in a better position going to Richmond.
    "I knew Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya were going to be tough (in the closing miles). And I hadn't gotten through the gears (on restarts) all night. But David Reutimann gave me a push on the frontstretch and got me going."
    "I said about three-quarters through the race that if it came down to a short run we might have a shot at it," Francis said. "So, man, when that caution came out (for Clint Bowyer's spin on lap 310 of the 325-lapper), it was perfect for us.
    "Kasey took off with a great restart, got the lead and drove away.
    "I just couldn't believe it."
    Indeed, it's yet another strange chapter in a season of those for the new Petty operation. Robbie Loomis, the general manager, was relieved at the rebound from Bristol: "We really got beat up in Bristol. Our confidence was shaken.
    "But Kasey was fantastic tonight."
   And so was Harvick, who appeared to have the car to beat down the stretch. That's quite a change for Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin, who have generally struggled this season. "Our cars have run fairly well the last seven or eight weeks, but we just wind up wrecked or having something stupid happen," Harvick said. "Seems like everything that has been happening has just kind of piled on."
   However for most drivers it was an evening filled with frustrations. Jeff Gordon, who finished eighth, called it "really crazy.
   "There were a lot of things going on.  I can't even keep up with all the different things that happened.
    "There were times I thought we had the car to beat; then I thought we were going to go a lap down.
    "We were trying to keep up with the changing conditions. Whether it was track, tires or whatever it was, man, we were all over the place and never could seem to find any consistency."
   Gordon wasn't alone.
   "You saw it all across the board," Steve Addington, crew chief for Kyle Busch, said. "Like Jimmie Johnson was up there with us leading the race…and then they went backwards. It was that way for a lot of people. Kasey was good all night. And Kevin Harvick really hit on something, and he was fast."
   It was almost a bizarre race. "When you've got Jeff Gordon screaming 'I don't know what's wrong…..'," Addington said.
   "You win one week (Busch won Bristol last time out) and everything is rosy. Then you have a bad week and struggle. And it's not a good time to struggle, with the way the points are right now."
   Busch himself left the track without comment.
   Sunday's 500 was a tough night for Ford teams. Greg Biffle led that pack with a 10th. And teammate Matt Kenseth managed to struggle in 12th. That keeps both men in the top-12 with a shot at the title this fall.
    Biffle's crew chief Greg Erwin had to scramble to come up with a setup that worked. "I'’m glad we picked the right way to go on this thing, because we were in big trouble," Biffle said. He might have finished a little better, but "Mark Martin spun his tires on the last restart and cost us probably three finishing spots… and right now those spots are critical," Biffle said.
    Kenseth wasn't happy afterwards. But then his cars haven't handled well most of the season. "I don't feel real good about it," Kenseth said.  "We were pretty optimistic in practice…and then we started the race way off. 
    "Then I ran into the wall; it's my fault, and that hurt us a little bit.  But it's just so inconsistent and hard to drive. We just can't really seem to figure out how to get these cars to go fast.
    "I don't think we had much idea what we were doing, to be honest with you.  We started so far off."
    Sticking in the top-12 didn't seem to mean that much either: "Not really…we ran so bad," Kenseth complained. 
    "I just want to run good and be back up front where we belong. 
    "We have a championship-caliber team as far as personnel; our pit stops have been pretty good, and we had a really good one right at the end when we needed it.
    "We're capable of much better than this. And, to be honest with you, more than the chase, I'm trying to think of how in the world we're going to get this team back running up front. We haven't done that since Fontana (in February)."
     For Carl Edwards, driving with a broken right foot, the night was more than frustrating: "We had something go through the oil cooler."
    That cost him 23 laps behind the wall for repairs. He returned to the fray and finished the race 37th….instead of 40th, where he would have been without repairs. That's an extra nine points.
   "We had a really good race car, and I think we could have finished top-three with it, and maybe contended for the win," Edwards said.

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