The Frontstretch: Kahne Leads Charge, But Chase Hopefuls Vickers, Busch Steal Headlines by Thomas Bowles -- Monday June 9, 2008

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Kahne Leads Charge, But Chase Hopefuls Vickers, Busch Steal Headlines

Bowles - Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday June 9, 2008


This weekend at Pocono began with the Sprint Cup point leader front and center, as Kyle Busch attempted the vaunted “tripleheader” – three races, three cities, three days – with Sunday’s 500-miler the biggest crown jewel of them all. But by the end, it was Busch who was pushed to the back pages, his late Spring momentum all but stopped in its tracks after an in-race wreck left him stumbling down to 43rd by the finish. Busch left the track with his point lead all but evaporated; instead, it was the Chase’s bubble driver – Kasey Kahne – who stole the show.

Welcome to the season’s second half.

While the gap at the top of the standings shrunk, the storylines from Pocono ballooned around Kahne and four other potential Chasers who finished their weekends in the Top 11: Brian Vickers, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and Bobby Labonte. It’s all part of a shifting of focus from the best to the better: while drivers like Kyle Busch, Burton, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. begin fine-tuning towards a run at the championship, the attention diverts towards those looking to simply get a “playoff” invitation over these summer months. And the list of contenders is growing by the day. No less than twenty one drivers are in contention to snatch one of the twelve Chase bids up for grabs; and judging by the finish on Sunday, it looks like the ones on the fringes of it all are beginning to put their best foot forward. But in a way, that makes perfect sense; for as those “locked” in at the top focus more towards the races that really count, the hottest drivers tend to become those who are still in position to have to prove themselves every week.

Ever since the fans showed Kasey Kahne some love by voting him into the All-Star race he ultimately won, he has scored victories in two of the last three point paying events.

Kasey Kahne’s the latest example of that. In a Pocono race where passing was at a premium, the Chase’s “bubble” driver (12th in points) had the fastest car all day and put himself in position to win when he easily could have crumbled. A botched pit stop by crew chief Kenny Francis – he called off a four tire pit stop as his crew was changing left side rubber, causing a second stop under yellow to tighten lug nuts – sent Kahne scrambling to the back of the pack. But Francis was able to suck it up and recover, using fuel and pit strategy calls to help turn the No. 9 team’s race back around. By lap 129, the pole sitter had the lead once again, and he survived a flurry of differing strategies to pace the field for 50 of the final 71 circuits.

“Kenny was pretty down and I was like, ‘Man, that’s the way it is, we’ll do what we can and get back up there,’” said Kahne. “I knew how strong the car was.”

There’s no argument there; at one point, Kahne was so dominant, he had built a lead of 10 seconds over his closest competitor. Picking up his second win in the last month (third if you include the Sprint Cup All-Star Event), Kahne moved his Dodge a little more cozily into the Chase. He’s now up to ninth, with a comforting 112-point gap over 13th place David Ragan.

But Kahne’s not alone in making a move. Behind him, drivers like Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and Brian Vickers left with strong finishes under their belt, serving notice they’ll be in contention to possibly bully their way into the Top 12 come August and September. For Vickers, his second place run was especially impressive; it’s Team Red Bull’s best ever finish, coming after a shade less than two years of official Cup Series competition. Staying out on the race’s final restart on lap 181, Vickers proved resilient on older tires, letting Kahne get by but successfully holding off third place Denny Hamlin until race’s end.

“I still feel like we have a little ways to go,” Vickers said afterward when assessing whether the team was ready to step it up another notch. “But, I’m really proud of those guys. I want to give them credit where credit is due.”

And Vickers should be proud. Over the past month, the No. 83 has been knocking on the door; a loose wheel and a pit road speeding penalty was all that took possible Top 5 finishes at both Lowe’s and Dover away. But even with some rotten luck, Vickers sits just 17th in the standings — and that’s a very attainable 112 points out of a Chase slot. Willing and able to wear the title of “underdog,” this team has an advantage in that it doesn’t yet expect to make the playoffs; getting there in their second season of existence is a bonus, not an expectation.

Of course, that’s in stark contrast to two other drivers on the outside looking in, Kenseth and Busch. Both former champions, they’ve struggled through inconsistent seasons that have left them out of the Chase at the end of the season’s first half. But as discussed in this space last week, Kenseth’s no stranger to coming from behind to make the playoffs, and neither is Busch, who was 18th in points at this very point in time one year ago. A seventh place at Pocono was his first Top 10 finish since the Daytona 500 — remarkable considering an early spin through the grass destroyed his splitter and nearly sent him packing to the garage — and could be exactly the type of momentum builder this team needed. Labeled a preseason championship contender, Busch’s slump has been mindboggling, especially considering crew chief Pat Tryson is still at the helm; but with 12 races left to go, there’s still plenty of time for the No. 2 car to turn it around.

“Kahne looked like he was struggling a few weeks back, but now he’s winning races,” Busch said optimistically on Sunday. “So, maybe it’s just right around the corner for us.”

You’d certainly hope so; but to get there, he needs to start walking. At the halfway point of last season, 11 of last year’s 12 Chasers were already in the Top 12; Kurt Busch was the only one to break through, knocking out part-timer Mark Martin over the summer months of June and July. This year, there’s a far better chance of more movement: Busch, Vickers, Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman and Martin Truex, Jr. are all among those big name drivers looking up at the Top 12 in the standings right now. In the meantime, a few of the Chasers look vulnerable – in particular the RCR entries of Bowyer and Harvick – and should Tony Stewart leave Gibbs, he becomes an unknown entity as well.

But to knock any of those drivers off, it’s certainly not going to come easy.

“You have to be on it,” Kahne said in his post-race press conference Sunday. “The Chase is the main goal of the season. We need to get all the points we can; and at the end of the day, hopefully we make it.”

If Pocono was any indication, Kahne’s clearly got a fighting chance; but if nothing else, he proved that the annual shift from the Chased to the Chasers has clearly gotten underway.

Contact Tom Bowles

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06/09/2008 02:00 AM

KB 43rd. Everyone else, 1-42. What an awesome race! It was a great topper to a “historical” weekend. Slam your crew on Friday, middle of the puddle on Saturday, and dead last on Sunday. Points lead all but gone, not that it matters with this silly chase, Ya just gotta love Karma.

06/09/2008 08:56 AM

MMMM?? Who does “KARMA” drive for?

06/09/2008 09:41 AM

Guess we won’t get to listen to Douglas brag about the punk this week!!

06/09/2008 11:29 AM

I think Little Busch now knows why nobody tried such a dumb road trip like that before.

It’s a kick in the nuts.

Mike In NH
06/09/2008 12:33 PM

Wow, way to jump all over Shrub after a bad weekend, folks – and in an article that wasn’t even about him. He had a broken rearview mirror and a bad spotter on Sunday, it wasn’t because he was tired. And he’s as aware as anyone that he has two wins worth of lead for the Chase right now over Edwards (-1 win for the penalty) and Kahne, so as long as those two don’t win two more and he’s still in the top 12, he’ll be the top dog when the Chase starts.

But what this article was about is the others contending for the Chase. Great job this week by the Red Bull teams, both cars had their best finishes ever. And I’d say Tony, who is one measly point out of 13th place, is in trouble regardless of whether he stays or goes, but I noticed last week he started to slump right after word got out about the contract situation. I’m hoping he’ll turn it around now that the Prelude and Indy are done.

06/09/2008 07:35 PM

Busch kind of looked like an amateur on the pro circuit this week, didn’t he? What comes around goes around.

06/10/2008 10:58 PM

Didn’t know the greatest driver of modern times would even need a mirror or a spotter. Just attitude…


Contact Tom Bowles

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