Look at the headlines this week, and you might think they tell the story of the early weeks of this year’s Chase. First Brad Keselowski and then Denny Hamlin grabbed attention for their winning efforts at Chicago and New Hampshire, respectively, and each was touted as the title favorite after the victory. And then, of course, there’s Jimmie Johnson, the five-time Chase champion who is the overwhelming favorite to win this weekend at Dover and who also happens to have the points lead.
And then there are the drivers on the opposite end of the spectrum: Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick…and the speculation about what has gone wrong, why they’re done and why they think they’re not. Throw in a couple of props to the Michael Waltrip Racing team and how they’ve flown in under the radar and are poised to make the team one of NASCAR’s elite. That about sums it up, right?
Not so fast. Where are Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne in all this talk?
It seems as though Stewart and Kahne have largely become the forgotten men in the championship conversation, despite the fact that Stewart sits just ten markers behind Johnson and Kahne is only 15 points out of the lead—in the same equipment Johnson drives.
Being the forgotten man in the Chase isn’t new to Stewart. He entered the 2011 Chase winless and tenth in points…and ended it as champion. Along the way Stewart racked up five wins—a .500 batting average for those keeping score at home. Those wins made the difference in the title as Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the season in a points tie…and NASCAR rules stipulate that the number of wins that season is the tie-breaker. Last year wasn’t the first time Stewart has made noise in the final ten races either. Two of his three titles are Chase titles, and his 11 Chase race wins stands second only to Johnson’s 20.
The thing about Stewart is, he’s historically been prone to streakiness—when he’s hot, he’s on fire. Last year’s title run is proof positive of that. On the other hand, Stewart has also hit patches where he gets good finishes, but not great ones…and we don’t know which Tony Stewart is going to come out and play at any given time. Still, to overlook him as one of the favorites when his worst finish in the last three races is seventh at Loudon would be foolish. The next couple of weeks will be telling-top 10s won’t win the title, but top fives and wins certainly can.
Lurking right behind Stewart in the standings is Kasey Kahne. Kahne is more of a Chase unknown compared to the competition; he’s only made NASCAR’s version of the playoffs twice and his best points finish is eighth in 2006. But Kahne wasn’t driving for powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports then. He was driving for second-tier Evernham (and later Richard Petty) Motorsports and didn’t have the caliber of equipment needed to take on the heavy hitters, most notably the team he now drives for, whose cars have won the last six titles.
And Kahne has to be hungry, perhaps even more so than his multiple-champion teammates Johnson and Gordon or pseudo-teammate Stewart. After all, he was touted as the young phenom, stolen away from Ford to set the Cup world on fire…and so far he hasn’t done it. Which is not to say he can’t. While it’s open for debate whether the 11th and 12th-place drivers are deserving of a Chase berth, you can’t argue that Kahne is making the most of his. Tied with Bowyer just 15 points off the lead, Kahne has overcome an abysmal start to the season to get there. Four races into 2012, Kahne’s team was in danger of falling out of the top 35 in owner points and the guaranteed starting spot that goes with it.
But then they rallied and by the time the dust cleared at Richmond, Kahne was 11th in driver points and the points reset put him in the thick of things. He’s outshone two of his teammates early in the so-called postseason, and though he has just two Chase wins, he has victories at Charlotte, Texas, and Phoenix, all of which have Chase races deep in the title race, and wins there could prove difficult for the competition to overcome if he can back them up with top finishes at tracks like Talladega and Homestead-Miami.
And yet, the championship talk has turned toward either the top three in points, the underdog team, and those whose title hopes are already fading. Meanwhile, Stewart and Kahne are both within easy striking distance. Kahne doesn’t have a victory to his credit at the Monster Mile, but Stewart has two of them—and while Johnson’s seven wins grab the lion’s share of attention, Stewart’s ten top 5s and 15 top 10s match Johnson in both categories. Throw in that Dover is like a mini-Talladega in that it’s alarmingly easy to get caught up in something totally not of one’s own doing, and it’s just too early to be putting a little No. 48 in Miles the Monster’s stony little hand.
Stewart has a better Dover average then either Keselowski or Hamlin, as well, and it’s completely within the realm of logic to think he could leave Delaware with the point lead. Kahne hasn’t been strong at Dover, but his best track, Charlotte, is coming up in just two weeks (Kahne already has a win in the Queen City this year).
While it seems like many fans and media are all but ready to engrave the trophy for Johnson, Hamlin, and Keselowski, Stewart, Kahne, and Clint Bowyer are lurking within easy striking distance, just waiting for a mistake. Bowyer has made some headlines lately for hanging with the leaders in equipment that had never before been comparable to Hendrick and Gibbs stuff, but Stewart and Kahne not only _have_ Hendrick stuff, they’ve been almost completely outside the scrutiny that the rest of the Chasers have faced so far.
So, when the championship talk erupts again this weekend, don’t leave Tony Stewart or Kasey Kahne out of it. They’re too close, too good, too hungry to be overlooked any longer.