Brett Poirier · Tuesday October 8, 2013
There have been a bunch of surprises in the last four weeks. Kevin Harvick dominated Kansas in a Richard Childress Racing car — that organization’s not affiliated with Gibbs or Hendrick in case you were wondering. Brad Keselowski showed the stamina of a world-class runner while sprinting to the infield care center during Saturday’s Nationwide race. A 15-hour race was held at Chicago. Brian France showed up to that race. The list could go on and on.
But the most surprising thing to me has been Kasey Kahne’s no-show in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Kahne’s performance has certainly gone downhill after a strong start to the season, but when I made my list of the three guys I thought could win the 2013 title it went: Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne.
Check the standings after four races and Kenseth’s first, Johnson’s second and Kahne’s 13th. That’s dead last, unless Brian France added another driver and I missed it.
Kahne shined in the last 10 races in 2011 and 2012. Driving for now-defunct Red Bull Racing, the young driver rolled to seven finishes of seventh or better in the final 10 races of 2011. He followed that up with a Chase berth in his first year with Hendrick in 2012 and five top-five finishes in the Chase. He wasn’t eliminated from championship contention until the very late stages despite the consistency of Brad Keselowski and Johnson and placed fourth in the final standings. Fans complain the Chase schedule favors Johnson, but it seemed like Kahne had the 10 tracks included figured out as well.
He should’ve only gotten better in 2013, right? Well, he did — at first. Kahne won Bristol and gave Kenseth all he could handle at 1.5-mile tracks Las Vegas and Kansas. Even with a win at Pocono and a second at Bristol, the No. 5 team has significantly dropped off in performance since then. As the Hendrick and Gibbs cars flexed their muscles in the second half of the season, winning nearly everything, Kahne and Denny Hamlin’s cars have appeared to come from another stable — possibly Richard Petty Motorsports. Kahne has been no match for teammates Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. He hasn’t found the top 10 since Bristol.
The Washington-native’s best finish in the four Chase races was 12th in the opener at Chicago. At New Hampshire, he drove into the side of Juan Pablo Montoya coming off Turn 4 and ended up stranded along the inside frontstretch wall (37th). He was 13th at Dover and followed up his near-win at Kansas earlier this season with a 15th-placing showing on Sunday.
In previous Chase appearances before last season, Kahne displayed plenty of talent, but it was apparent that he didn’t have the resources around him to compete for a title. His record in Chase races from the last couple of years speaks for itself. Kahne proved last season that he was a threat for a title, and not someone who was just there to take up a spot. Or in the case of Kyle Busch, someone whose maturity wasn’t up to par with his driving talent, and it was holding him back. In his second year in top-tier equipment, Kahne was primed to at least threaten for the title, but it hasn’t happened. Instead, he’s 83 points out the championship lead. If the 12 Chasers in front of him don’t show up for the final two races, he still might not win the title.
France might as well have thrown Stenica in the Chase instead of Kahne — we’ll call it the popularity wild card. Brian, can we put 14 cars in the Chase? We might as well just add another one, right? I’m just kidding about all that, but out of all the guys I would’ve assumed to be non-factors in the playoffs, I never would’ve assumed Kahne. Earlier this season, the Hendrick driver was one of only a few in the garage area who could compete for wins with Kenseth, but while the No. 20 has only gotten stronger and the No. 5 has only gotten weaker.
This weekend, the series heads to Kahne’s best track statistically, Charlotte. Four of his 16 career wins have come there and he was runner-up to Harvick in the spring. This will be the best measuring stick for this team, yet. A top five could help right the ship and put the No. 5 team closer to the banquet stage. Another finish outside the top 10 will show how far this team has fallen.
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