Kahne ready to race his way into Chase

Published 6:58 pm Thursday, September 7, 2006

Kasey Kahne has been on the Chase for the championship bubble before — twice, actually — and failed to race his way into NASCAR’s title-crowning format both times.

He’ll be back on the bubble this weekend at Richmond International Raceway, where he’s the only driver still mathematically eligible to crack the top 10 and compete for the Nextel Cup title. Currently 11th in the standings, he’s only 30 points out of the final qualifying position. A perfect race Saturday night could vault him all the way to third in the points.

“There’s definitely going to be some nerves going into the race,” Kahne admitted. “There’s a lot relying on what we do on Saturday night.”

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But Kahne has been in this position before. As a rookie in 2004, he actually arrived in Richmond in the Chase at ninth in the standings. But a nudge from Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun his car and led to a 24th-place finish that eliminated him from the postseason.

He was a long shot to make it last year, and his eighth-place race finish ultimately wasn’t nearly good enough to get him in.

So what’s to say that this year will be any different?

For starters, Kahne has team leader Kenny Francis on his side. Francis has been in this position before. Unlike Kahne, he was successful.

As Jeremy Mayfield’s crew chief in 2004, Francis championed a dream scenario when Mayfield won the race to earn his Chase berth. Now Francis leads Kahne’s No. 9 team. He delivered big last weekend in California, guiding Kahne to his fifth win of the season.

“He’s going to be aggressive with setups and things like that,” Kahne said. “Adjustments, we’ll be aggressive with those during the race. He did a good job the last time he was in this position, and he got us back in the hunt this last weekend in California.

“That guy is always up to make our car quick and to make everybody happy and proud.”

But Kahne also has some personal quirks working against him this weekend.

When Kahne packs his weekend schedule with commitments, it strangely translates into success on the race track. But on the biggest weekend of the season, his calendar was wiped clean. That included Friday night’s Busch Series race, which could have been the perfect tune-up for the main event.

A week ago in California, Kahne won the Busch race the night before his dominating Cup victory.

“When I do race Busch, it seems like we raced pretty good in the Cup car,” he said. “This weekend I was supposed to race Busch, and we decided not to. I’m thinking about it now, kind of wishing I was. Last week, the Busch car actually really helped the Cup side, because we learned. I learned some things driving that car, and then we used the Cup setup to help that car out.

“So it was definitely a big part of why we did so well was running both at California”

Now he’ll go without bonus track time at a place Kahne doesn’t exactly love. Even though Kahne scored his first career win at Richmond in early 2005, he’s never felt entirely comfortable on the .75-mile oval. He’s got just two top-10 finishes there, coupled with three finishes of 24th or worse.

“Richmond to me is just another race track … not one of my favorites to go to,” he admitted.

Kahne will need to get over that quickly. The three main drivers he’s chasing — Tony Stewart, Mark Martin and Jeff Burton — are all former Richmond winners, and Stewart has been to Victory Lane there three times.

But Kahne actually is chasing seven total drivers. Only points leader Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are locked in, and only 147 points separate positions three through 11. A driver can gain a maximum of 156 points over another competitor in one race.

Granted, some of the contenders have a much easier task than others to hold off Kahne.

Kevin Harvick only needs to finish 40th. Jeff Gordon would get in by finishing 25th or better. Stewart only needs to be seventh or better to lock himself in, and no matter what Kahne does, Martin and Burton can hold him off by finishing fourth or better.

“As close as all three of those guys are, it’s just going to come down to what happens late in the race,” Kahne said. “I don’t really look at one guy as who I have to beat or not. We’ve just got to go out there and try to beat everybody.”