Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday June 19, 2006
Throughout a topsy-turvy Nextel Cup season, the two names at the top of the point standings have remained as consistent as those two drivers' abilities to run up front. With five wins scattered between them, the leaders of the Hendrick / Roush juggernauts, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, have done their best to sprint away from the rest of the field.
Too bad neither one is a lock to win the title.
Three years ago, the focus of the series would already be centered towards a Johnson / Kenseth championship battle. With both drivers the only ones to lead the points so far this season, and third place Kasey Kahne already well over 200 points behind, any opportunity for another team to snatch away the Nextel Cup trophy would already be in serious jeopardy.
But that was then and this is now, and NASCAR's not in Kansas anymore; the Chase for the Championship chooses to play by a different set of rules. After 15 races in 2004, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were your top two men in the point standings. After 15 races in 2005, it was Johnson and Greg Biffle. Dominant forces in the first half of each of those seasons, none of those three men went on to win the Nextel Cup title. Instead, the Chase winner was someone who took it upon themselves to make the second half of the season their personal playground, peaking at the time they needed to, the final 10 races of the Chase. Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart figured out that with the Chase format, all that matters in the first 26 races is getting into the Nextel Cup Top 10; nothing more, nothing less. They've got the hardware to prove it.
Attempting to learn from what history has taught us, then, what driver comfortably in position for the Chase right now appears poised and ready to sneak up on Johnson and Kenseth five months from now, snatching their title dreams away? For the answer, you turn to none other than NASCAR's Comeback Story of the Year: third-year Kasey Kahne.
That's right; after winning from the pole for the third time this season, Kahne now leads the circuit with four Nextel Cup victories, and has moved to third in the driver standings, albeit 244 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. Of course, that number will be significantly reduced come race 27, so as long as Kahne makes the Top 10 he need not worry about catching Johnson in the next 11 races, just positioning himself for the Championship Chase battle to come. It's a refreshing change for the 2004 Rookie of the Year, who spent most of last season crawling out of wrecked race cars rather than crawling out in Victory Lane.
Not only has the 26 year old turned that aggressiveness into patient consistency, when you look at those final 10 races, it seems no one is better positioned than Kahne. Five of the Chase races are held at tracks between 1.5 miles and 2 miles in length, the type of facilities Kahne has made his own personal playground this season. In six starts this year at tracks of those lengths, Kahne has all four of his wins : Texas, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Michigan – as well as two fourth place finishes. That's four wins and six Top 5s – you can't get much better than that.
Of course, no other driver comes close to that type of record on those speedways. Johnson? He's won once, but finished 11th at Texas and has only three Top 5 finishes in six starts. Kenseth? He's got four Top 5 finishes…combined with two 13th place runs at Atlanta and Michigan.
Truth be told, Kahne's got the edge, and his record at the other five tracks on the Chase schedule isn't too shabby, either. New Hampshire? Kahne has three Top 10 finishes in four career starts. Dover? Kahne finished 7th at the track two weeks ago. Phoenix? Try a 6th place run in the Cup race back in April. Martinsville? Kahne finished runner up at the track back in 2005. Only at Talladega does Kahne and the 9 team show any signs of vulnerability…but that race is a crapshoot not just for them, but for every other driver participating in the Chase, too.
Speaking of racing luck, Kahne also caught those tough breaks and gotten them out of the way early in the year rather than late. While Johnson and Kenseth have one DNF between them, Kahne has two – an engine failure at Martinsville combined with a wreck at Talladega. In fact, Kahne has three finishes of 34th or worse – Johnson, on the other hand, hasn't finished lower than 30th. Unfortunately for the 48 team, the racing Gods seem to ensure their tough luck finishes occur during the last 10 races.
That's not to say there aren't obstacles ahead for Kahne. Not only has the Washington native never been in a championship battle of any kind in NASCAR's top series, but his team, Evernham Motorsports, has failed miserably in its last two Chase appearances, finishing 10th and 9th with former driver Jeremy Mayfield. However, Kahne's crew chief Kenny Francis was at the helm of the Mayfield debacle in 2005 and knows what went wrong; more importantly, he feels this time, he can make it right. Kahne, as well, finds himself with two extra pillars of support to lean on in Mayfield and mentor Bill Elliott, and his calm demeanor will prepare him well as to the pressures he can only begin to imagine, three months from the biggest ten races of his life.
Last week, Kahne spoke candidly in an interview about how the biggest thing he'd learned about himself in the past year is that he needs to not overthink things too much. Come September, that statement will be put to the test, because if Kahne doesn't stop and think about just how good he really is, he just might sneak up on all of us and become NASCAR's newest champion.
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