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Kahne Prevails by Playing the Fuel

He passes Sorenson after the rookie runs out of gas with two laps left at Fontana, gets his fifth win of '06 and improves his chances for Chase.

September 04, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Kasey Kahne started his weekend in Southern California by happily swerving sideways with top drivers from the "drifting" racing series to raise money for his children's charity.

But on Sunday, with his hopes for making NASCAR's "Chase for the Nextel Cup" championship on the line, Kahne kept his No. 9 Dodge marching forward despite a penalty and a late-race threat from rookie Reed Sorenson to win the Sony HD 500 at California Speedway.

Sorenson gambled by not making a late pit stop for fuel, but his luck ran out with fewer than two laps remaining when his Dodge ran out of gas.

Kahne then swept by for his series-leading fifth victory of the year for Evernham Motorsports, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had his best run ever at California Speedway in his Chevrolet and also bolstered his chances of making the Chase. He's now sixth in the points.

Rookie Clint Bowyer was third in a Richard Childress Racing Chevy and Carl Edwards, a Ford driver for Roush Racing, was fourth.

The win moved Kahne closer to making the Chase, in which the top 10 drivers in points compete for the title during the final 10 races of the 36-race season.

Sunday's race was the 25th event of the season, and the last race to determine the drivers in the Chase is scheduled Saturday night in Richmond, Va.

Kahne entered Sunday's race 11th in points, 90 behind 10th-place Mark Martin. But Kahne narrowed the gap to just 30 points heading into Richmond.

Martin, meanwhile, finished 12th in a Roush Ford and rose to ninth in the points, while Childress driver Jeff Burton fell to 10th after finishing 16th in the race.

Several other drivers also kept their "Chase" hopes alive with strong finishes.

Matt Kenseth of Roush took over the points lead by finishing seventh, while Jimmie Johnson of El Cajon slipped to second with an 11th-place finish for Hendrick Motorsports.

Bakersfield's Kevin Harvick, another Childress driver, finished 15th and remains third in the points. Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner at California Speedway, remains fourth in points by finishing fifth and he also led 30 laps.

"I knew the 9 car was the car to beat," Gordon said. With Kahne so strong, Gordon said he "should feel fortunate with fifth."

For Kahne, it was his second victory in 24 hours at Fontana; the 26-year-old driver from Washington state also won the Ameriquest 300 Busch Series race on Saturday night at the two-mile, D-shaped oval.

"We just hit everything right this weekend," Kahne said. After the Busch win, he said, "I was pretty pumped up this morning when I woke up. My dad said he was going to get the broom out last night, he was telling me I better sweep it," he added, referring to both races.

The accident-free Cup race before more than 90,000 was Kahne's first victory at California Speedway, and it was the first time a Dodge won a Cup race in Fontana since the first one was held here in 1997.

Kahne started ninth in the 43-car field for the 250-lap race that started at 5 p.m. -- with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees -- and ended under the lights nearly 3 1/2 hours later.

The surface of racetracks changes considerably from day to night, forcing teams to constantly adjust the cars as the temperature cools and the surface becomes less slippery. But the changing conditions made no difference to Kahne, who led the most laps, 130.

He also was undeterred by a penalty he received midway through the race for speeding on pit road. That sent him back to 22nd, but he quickly climbed back through the pack to beat Earnhardt by 3.4 seconds.

"I didn't think I sped" on pit road "but I must have just barely been over," Kahne said. Regardless, "we had a great car from the start. I felt like, going into the race, we had a car that could run up front."

"I came here telling myself 'You gotta win, you gotta win, you gotta lead laps," he said. "That's all you can do if you want to make this chase."

Earnhardt has mostly struggled in Fontana, but he was strong throughout Sunday's race and gained several positions at the end by driving on the high side of the track.

"The top was really good for me," he said. "Our team is starting to peak at this point in the season. I'm pretty excited about going to Richmond."

But Sorenson, a 20-year-old rookie looking for his Nextel Cup win, was anything but excited after running out of fuel. When the race ended, he climbed out of his car and quickly sought refuge in his team hauler.

"We knew we were about three-quarters of a lap short" of gas, but "it was a risk worth taking," said Chip Ganassi, who owns Sorenson's team with Felix Sabates. As for Sorenson, Ganassi said "that's good that he's upset. I like guys who have emotion."

Denny Hamlin, meanwhile, remained the only rookie still in contention for the Chase. Hamlin, who drives for Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs racing, finished sixth and remains seventh in the points.

There were 26 lead changes among 10 drivers, and seven caution periods for 29 laps.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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