Kasey Kahne rallies in last 2 laps to win at Atlanta, makes Chase

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Kasey Kahne’s 17th career Sprint Cup win couldn’t have been any larger.

Battling Matt Kenseth in a two-lap, green-white-checker drag race to the finish, Kahne punched his ticket into the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Kenseth’s Toyota wiggled heading into the white flag lap and that’s all it took for Kahne to get past, rolling to his first win in 39 starts, dating back to August 2013 at Pocono.

“We were all over the place during the race, but the guys stayed with me and worked hard,” Kahne said in Victory Lane. “I’m really happy and real thankful. We’ve had a downer year at times. … It’s been one thing after another, but now I’m in the Chase with my teammates and it’s great to be part of HMS (Hendrick Motorsports).”

Kahne becomes the 13th different driver to win a race this season, with just next week’s race at Richmond for any other winless driver to win and also make the Chase.

“This is a team effort,” Kahne said. “The guys did great tonight and I’m pretty pumped to be in here. We’re locked in. I hate that it comes down to this, Atlanta and Richmond for me. Sometimes we’re in and sometimes we’re out. We made it again, third time with HMS. I’m thankful for that.”

Beating Kenseth by a margin of .574 of a second, Kahne now joins his other three Hendrick Motorsports teammates – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon – in making the Chase.

That gives the overall organization now a 25 percent chance to win the championship – the best odds of any of the 16 teams that will make up the expanded playoff field.

All three of his HMS teammates came over to congratulate Kahne in Victory Lane.

“How the heck did you get past them?” Jeff Gordon laughed to Kahne while giving him kudos for the win.

While he came up short for a second-place finish, Kenseth still has reason to feel elated, having officially clinched his spot in the Chase on points. While he’d like for it to have been a win, he gladly settled for second and a place in the playoffs.

“Those last two laps were really intense,” Kenseth said. “… Things are looking up. I’m looking forward to the next 11 (races).”

Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, who finished third, led the field to the green flag for the final restart on Lap 333, but Hamlin’s could not catch Kenseth nor hold off Kahne, ultimately finishing third.

“I couldn’t capitalize, couldn’t get the restarts and couldn’t accelerate,” Hamlin said. “We just came up short. Third is about the place car we had tonight.”

Jimmie Johnson finished fourth, followed by Carl Edwards.

Danica Patrick had an outstanding run, finishing sixth, followed by Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola and Greg Biffle.

Pole-sitter Kevin Harvick dominated the race, leading 195 laps and appeared headed for a weekend sweep, having won Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race.

But Harvick got into a late wreck when he was pushed into the wall and the trailing car of Joey Logano by Paul Menard.

Harvick finished 19th.

It was a rough night for a number of drivers:

* Tony Stewart, making his first start after missing the last three Sprint Cup races due to the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, ran a very strong race until Lap 122, when his car and that of Kyle Busch made contact.

Both cars suffered right side damage that required several pit stops for Stewart under caution to repair the damage. Busch’s crew was able to repair the damage to his car on just one stop.

While Stewart was able to stay on the lead lap until just before halfway (Lap 161), dropping one lap down at that point, things went from bad to worse 11 laps later.

Stewart appeared to suffer tire failure and his car went directly into the Turn 2 wall, sustaining significant damage, forcing him to limp his injured ride back to the pits and then on to the garage area, where it appeared his night had come to an end.

* Jeff Gordon was running second when his car hit the wall on Lap 79 heading into Turn 3, apparently due to a blown left front tire, Gordon told his crew over the team radio. Gordon’s car was never quite the same, ending up in 17th-place.

* Clint Bowyer, trying to hold on to his spot in the Chase, suffered a broken shifter in his car early in the race, leading to being sidelined for more than 20 laps in the garage while. Bowyer finished 38th.

* Marcos Ambrose’s two remaining chances to make the Chase with a win were abruptly cut in half when the motor on his Ford Fusion broke on Lap 123 of the 325-lap event.

* After making contact with Denny Hamlin and Josh Wise, Brad Keselowski slammed into the wall with under 30 laps to go, sustaining enough damage to send his Penske Racing Ford to the garage.

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F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.