Kasey Kahne is a bit of an accidental tourist to the NASCAR Chase.
He’s sitting at the Big Boy table now, along with three of his stout teammates after meandering around the standings without a victory all season.
His late-night push Sunday on the final restart at Atlanta Motor Speedway changed all of that when he was able to overtake Matt Kenseth for the victory.
Welcome to the Chase, Kasey Kahne.
“I told a couple of friends this week, ‘I have to win. I have to win Sunday night,’ “ Kahne said in the wee hours of Monday morning during the winner’s press conference in the media center.
“It was all that I could think about. I knew Atlanta was a better opportunity for myself to win at than Richmond. I feel better here than I do at Richmond.”
Kahne is playing with house money now at Richmond, Saturday night’s final Sprint Cup race of the regular season before the 10-race Chase postseason commences. He didn’t have the best car at Atlanta — that belonged to pole-sitter Kevin Harvick — but Kahne certainly was behind the wheel of the most opportunistic ride.
Harvick led the first 80 laps and 195 laps overall but got bounced into the wall on a restart late in the race, bringing another caution flag and a second shootout.
Kahne then squeezed past Kenseth and Denny Hamlin on the last restart after starting third on the final sprint.
So much for Kahne’s “downer” year. It began with a 31st-place finish at Daytona, and he continued to clunk around the track for most of the season, including a 35th place two weekends ago at Bristol.
“Just glad to see these guys have some good luck,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “They have had a tough year, and [crew chief] Kenny Francis has made a lot of great calls there tonight.
“Got the car right, and Kasey. There’s something about Kasey when the sun goes down on a mile-and-a-half track. So we're glad to go to Richmond and have them all in the Chase.”
Kasey’s in esteemed company now — joining teammates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, all three-time winners this year.
Missing out on the Chase would have been a tough deal for Kahne. He’s the baby of the bunch, but hardly a newbie at 34 years old. But you know he feels a bit of peer pressure whenever Hendrick reconvenes the group for a team photo.
Johnson is a six-time Cup champion. Gordon has four titles. Earnhardt is the son of one of the most iconic figures in the sport and is a prime contender for his first Cup title this season.
“When I came off Turn 4 and I could see the checkered, right there is the first time I knew I was in the Chase and it's such a relief,” Kahne said. “I have the best teammates and Mr. H gives us everything that we need, and up until now we weren't going to be in the Chase and that hurt.”
Kahne is no longer hurting and no longer the little brother who gets his ears flicked and pants pulled down by his big brothers.
Welcome to the Chase, big man.