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NEW HAMPSHIRE MOTOR SPEEDWAY

Lenox win a reason to celebrate

Kahne and crew save their season

Kasey Kahne's crew came pouring onto pit road as he raced across the finish line at New Hampshire Motor Speedway yesterday. They jumped up and down and threw up their arms, and Kahne matched their jubilation, wearing out his tires in burnouts at the line and at the first turn in front of the fans.

Winning a race is exciting enough. But the reward was bigger than one day in July for Kahne and his team.

Kahne was on the outside of the Chase for the Sprint Cup going into yesterday, his playoff hopes in need of help. Three hundred and one laps later, he had all the help he may need.

Kahne got a break and the lead with 66 laps to go and held on to win the Lenox Industrial Tools 301, holding off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin during the final laps at NHMS.

"I tried to get away, and we ended up winning," said Kahne, who earned his first Loudon win. "I'm really happy; this is a tough track. I've run pretty good here at times and struggled other times."

The victory couldn't have come at a much better time. The top 10 drivers in the Sprint Cup standings qualify directly for the Chase, and the final two spots go to the drivers ranked 11th through 20th with the most wins. Kahne, sitting in 16th coming in, already had a win, but so did Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman, who were ahead of him in the standings.

With eight races left until the Chase, Kahne had to win one of them or, unless he got past two of those drivers on points, his season would be over. It was a bleak scenario, but Kahne knew his chances were better than the points suggested.

"I feel like we've been pretty tough all year," he said. "We just haven't finished them off a lot of times."

Kahne made it clear he would stick around yesterday. An excellent qualifying time had him starting second, and he never relinquished his spot near the top, running in the top five all race.

First place, however, seemed out of reach. Pole sitter Kyle Busch had the superior car early, and following a pit stop on lap 68, Hamlin charged in front and paced the field for 150 of the next 169 laps, building a lead that reached a full three seconds.

Kahne needed some good fortune, and he got it during a caution on the 235th lap. A pit stop miscommunication had Hamlin taking four tires instead of two, costing him valuable seconds and a chance to keep the lead.

With the day's fastest car stuck in 13th place, Kahne, who took only two tires on the same stop, had his lead. He just had to hang on. He did - though Hamlin, who made up two full seconds in only 17 laps, never quit.

"When we got two tires there at the end to put us first, I was feeling really good about where we were at," he said. "Then I knew I needed to get as big a lead as I could because I knew Denny would be coming at some point."

When Kahne crossed the line, the race was over, and any chance of his season ending prematurely likely ended, as well. Kahne jumped from the bubble to the front of the wild card picture, since his two victories lead all drivers not currently in line for an automatic Chase spot.

One race was all it took for the picture to brighten for the 32-year-old, who was 31st in the standings six races into the season. Kahne is one of five drivers to have won multiple races; he has won more than Cup leaders Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he's placed in the top 10 more often than Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and defending champion Tony Stewart, all of whom are in line to make the Chase field.

Suddenly, the wild card hopeful is a full-fledged championship contender.

"I feel good about where we're at now," Kahne said. "We just have to stay consistent, stay after it, keep putting ourselves in position and hopefully win a couple more races."

It was quite the celebration in the pits and on the track. But after possibly saving their season, Kahne and his team had plenty of cause for excitement.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340, abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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