INDIANAPOLIS -- Of all the drivers who ran at or near the front of the 21st annual Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kasey Kahne needed a win the most.
Kahne has run in the shadow of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates in 2014, going winless during a campaign in which Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon have combined for seven victories, including Gordon's triumph Sunday at the Brickyard. Coming into Indianapolis, Gordon and Earnhardt ran 1-2 in the Sprint Cup standings, with Johnson fifth. Kahne, meanwhile, languished in 17th place in the points, in serious jeopardy of not making NASCAR's 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Kahne, along with crew chief Kenny Francis, gave it his best shot Sunday. The No. 5 Time Warner Cable Chevrolet led a race-high 70 of the 160 laps and was in front for the final restart of the day with 17 laps to go.
But Kahne's Chevrolet had burned excess fuel while running in the lead, causing him to make his final pit stop with 33 laps remaining, a few laps earlier than most of his rivals. Encouraged by Francis to save fuel during the caution that flew on Lap 139 when Ryan Truex slowed on the main straight, Kahne picked up a lot of junk on his tires.
"My tires are filthy," Kahne said to Francis on the radio.
Sure enough, on the restart, Gordon made a decisive move to the outside in Turn 1, cutting across Kahne's path at the exit of the corner. Kahne lost momentum, and by the end of the lap, he had dropped to fifth place.
He lost a top-5 finish to Joey Logano in the closing stages but took some positives out of a competitive run, including moving up two places in the standings to 15th place.
"The positive is I finished sixth," Kahne told reporters. "We ran well, and it's the strongest effort the team has put out all season long. All of us working together, yeah, we can take a lot out of here. That was a good performance today.
"We had a really good car, and I was happy with the speed of the car," he added. "Just didn't get the win, but we were close. The team had a really great effort and did a nice job. I was really happy with that."
While the pass for first came just after the restart, Kahne believed that Gordon's car was so strong that losing the lead was inevitable.
What Gordon called "the restart of his life" ended the drama early.
"I thought I made the right decision to start on the inside," Kahne said. "Looking back, I probably should have chosen the top, and that would have put us in a better place. If I had beat him, I would have had to race the heck out of him. He was faster than I was. He was going to get by me in [Turns] 1 and 2 anyway. So we probably would have finished a lot worse.
"I guess for points it was good. The team gave it all they had, and we just came up a little short."
Six weeks remain in the fight to get into the Chase field, and Kahne believes he is in good shape, both in terms of his position in the standings and his ability to win a race.
"I know we need a win," he said. "We have five more good tracks for us and six more races, so hopefully we can get one."
If the Hendrick team won the race and placed all four of its drivers in the top 14 on Sunday, it was arguably an even better day for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Running crew chief Darian Grubb's alternate fuel strategy, Hamlin in particular felt he was in a position to win. But the FedEx Toyota encountered a problem with a fuel rig seal during a Lap 90 pit stop, necessitating an unexpected extra trip to the pits for gasoline.
Forced into fight-back mode, Hamlin was pleased to come away with third place. However, his Toyota is under investigation by NASCAR for "possible issues with several rear firewall block-off plates."
"Dang it -- we just didn't get it full that one stop," Hamlin said. "If it all worked out, we were going to have a 15-second lead with enough fuel to make it. That just shows how fast our car was, that we were able to battle back with our FedEx team.
"I'm proud of the run we had. Obviously, passing is really difficult here, and we passed all the cars we needed to pass today."
Busch never led and didn't have the pace to run with the two fastest Hendrick cars, but he ran in the top five all afternoon and moved up two positions in the standings to sixth place.
"I don't think anybody had anything for the 24 [Gordon]," Busch said. "But it was a great day here for Joe Gibbs Racing finishing 2-3-4. We're proud of the effort here. The guys did a great job, and we look forward to the next few weeks."
Kenseth is the only JGR driver without a race win this year, but his consistency has carried him to fourth place in the points chase, ahead of his teammates.
"All our Toyotas were pretty quick today," Kenseth said. "I wish it was a 1-2-3, but it was still a good day for us.
"I feel like we've been gaining on it, and when we had track position, we were pretty quick."