NASCAR: Kahne holds on for win, Stewart returns to racing (Video highlights)

Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Truex (83) slides in a turn during an NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Hampton, Ga. Sprint Cup Series driver Martin Truex Jr. (78) dives past in the background. (AP Photo/Dale Davis)

Kahne holds off Kenseth to win Atlanta shootout

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) -- Kasey Kahne's "downer" year received an important boost when he overcame his struggles with restarts with a big power move when he needed it the most.

Kahne charged past Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin in a two-lap shootout to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night.

Kahne's first win of the season earned him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

"I struggle with restarts a lot and that's big," Kahne said. "That's one of the things you have to be good at. It worked really well tonight."

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart's much-anticipated return to racing ended a little more than halfway through the race.

Stewart hit the wall for the second time after his right front tire blew out on Lap 172, ending his night with a 41st-place finish.

Kahne took his third career win in Atlanta and his first win of the season.

"We've had kind of a downer year at times," Kahne said.

Kenseth, who finished second, also qualified for the Chase on points. He began the second restart in first place, but couldn't stop the charge from Kahne.

"I was able to get alongside him and get a good run down the back stretch," Kenseth said. "... I got back to the gas as soon as I could. I just didn't have enough muscle to clear him."

Hamlin was third, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Danica Patrick.

It was Stewart's first race since the sprint car he was driving struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. in an Aug. 9 race at a dirt track in upstate New York. The fatal wreck is still under investigation.

With only two laps remaining and Kahne holding a solid lead over Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch collided, forcing a caution flag and the first shootout. Harvick, who led 195 laps, had contact with Joey Logano in heavy traffic and hit the wall on the restart, bringing another caution flag and a second shootout.

Kahne, who had four fresh tires, started behind Kenseth and Hamlin on the final restart.

"I felt better about the first restart because the outside lane was really slick and I hardly spun the tires," Kenseth said. "I felt really good about that. The second one I didn't feel nearly as good about. (Kahne) was behind me. They had so much speed. They drove right up between me and Denny."

Harvick, who also won the Nationwide Series race on Saturday night, started from the pole and led the first 80 laps, but was denied his attempt for a weekend sweep.

Logano, who won last week at Bristol, finished 14th.

Stewart's problems started when he went into the wall earlier in the race following a collision with Kyle Busch.

Kenseth began the night fifth in the points race, but was not yet locked into the Chase because he had no wins. Kenseth needed to finish seventh or better to secure his place in the playoffs.

After leading the final 159 laps of his dominant Nationwide series win on Saturday night, Harvick resumed his mastery of the Atlanta Motor Speedway track. Starting from his series-leading sixth pole of the season, Harvick led the first 80 laps, giving him a combined 239 consecutive laps led at the track over two races.

Hamlin passed Harvick for the lead after Jeff Gordon, who had been second, blew a tire and slid into the wall on turn 3 on the 78th lap, forcing a yellow flag.

Stewart started 12th and opened strong, moving up to sixth in the first five laps. Driving high on the track, three-wide at times, he made two more passes to move to fourth a few laps later. He fell back to 12th before his first big setback. Busch, attempting to move to the top of the track, cut in front of Stewart, forcing Stewart into the wall.

After two visits to pit row for repairs, Stewart didn't last long. Only 50 laps later, he hit the wall on turn 2 after his right front tire blew. This time he drove his more heavily damaged car to the garage, and his race was over.

Brad Keselowski was fourth when a collision with Josh Wise ended his night with 28 laps remaining.

Ty Dillon, making his Sprint Cup debut, finished 25th.

Harvick had a scare early in the race when a small animal ran across the track in front of his car. He told his crew a cat ran across the track, but later it was discovered to be a squirrel, which was found hiding near turn 3.

Stewart back on the track, but big issues remain

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) -- His racing suit unzipped down to his waist, Tony Stewart walked glumly out of Atlanta Motor Speedway with two issues still hanging over him.

He doesn't know if he'll face criminal charges for his car striking and killing another driver.

He's yet to claim a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

At least he was back on the track.

Stewart's return to racing was cut short Sunday night when his familiar No. 14 car slammed the wall twice on the way to a dismal 41st-place finish.

But being behind the wheel for any length of time could be a big step toward healing from the tragedy in upstate New York, when 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. was hit by Stewart's car during a dirt-track race.

"Hopefully this is the step in the right direction for what he needs to get better," said Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin, who finished third in Atlanta.

Ward's death is being investigated, and authorities say it will take at least two more weeks to determine if criminal charges should be filed.

In the meantime, Stewart turned his focus to Richmond next weekend, knowing that is his final chance to qualify for NASCAR's playoffs.

"I wish we could have had a better effort and a better finish for him," crew chief Chad Johnston said. "We'll go on to Richmond and hope we can do better there."

After sitting out the last three Cup races, his team saying he needed time to grieve, Stewart got off to a strong start in Atlanta. He ran in the top 10 through the early stages of the race, climbing as high as fourth, but his chance for a Chase-clinching victory was wiped out through no fault of his own.

On lap 122, Kyle Busch's car drifted high coming out of turn 2 on a restart, collecting Stewart and sending them both into the wall. Fifty laps later, having gone to the pits for repairs but no longer running near the front, Stewart blew a right front tire and smacked the barrier even harder, his car throwing up sparks as he limped back to the garage.

It didn't take long for the crew to determine there was no way to get the Chevrolet back on the track. Stewart barely made it past the halfway point of the race.

But while he was running, it seemed like the same ol' Stewart to his competitors.

"When we took green at the start of the race, I was thinking about going high," said Kasey Kahne, who went on to claim his first victory of the season. "He was already there. I was like, `Yep, Tony's back.'"

After calling it a night, Stewart showed no emotion and didn't say anything as he was trailed by reporters on the way to his hauler.

"It was good to see him back," said Mike Arning, a spokesman for Stewart-Haas Racing. "Part of that healing process for him was getting back in the race car. This is what he's done since he was 8 years old. This is his family. He's 43 years old. He's not married. He doesn't have children. It's who he is and what he knows."

Stewart received a big cheer from the crowd when he was introduced before the race. Many fans wrote notes of encouragement on the pavement at the entrance to his garage stall.

"Welcome back Tony."

"Go Get Em Smoke."

He started 12th and got by three cars on the very first lap.

"I thought he was pretty strong all weekend," fellow driver Kyle Larson said. "He's a tough competitor and really fun to race with."

In the end, though, Stewart beat only two other drivers in the 43-car field.

He went into seclusion after Ward was killed at a track in upstate New York on Aug. 9. The youngster was struck after he charged onto the track to confront Stewart, angry over a collision that knocked Ward out of the race.

Normally, Cup drivers must compete in every event to be eligible for the title, but NASCAR granted a waiver to Stewart under a rule intended for primarily for medical issues.

Even so, the only way for the three-time Cup champion to qualify for the playoffs was to win at either Atlanta or Richmond.

He's down to his final shot.

Whether Stewart makes the Chase or not, he felt he needed to be with the team he co-owns to help him cope with Ward's death. In his only comments of the weekend, he said "This is something that will definitely affect my life forever."

"This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience in their life," he added.

Now, it's on to Richmond.

"We're just taking it one day at a time, one week at a time," Arning said. "This is uncharted territory for all of us."