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 15: 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, Jeff 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 21 drivers are in contention to snatch one of the 12 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.
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) caused a second stop under yellow to tighten lugnuts and 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 polesitter 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 Kenseth, Kurt Busch and 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-five 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 Clint Bowyer and Kevin 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.