Kahne needs to punch his Chase ticket

ASSOCIATED PRESS With one top-five finish and four top-10s in the season's last seven races, Kasey Kahne is on the verge of visiting victory lane.
ASSOCIATED PRESS With one top-five finish and four top-10s in the season's last seven races, Kasey Kahne is on the verge of visiting victory lane.
Posted: August 08, 2014

SOMETIMES WE tend to focus on what's wrong with NASCAR, so when a positive occasion occurs it deserves attention.

Those who saw the end of last Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway will never forget it. It was one of the best finishes ever at Pocono. The way Dale Earnhardt Jr. held off Kevin Harvick in the closing laps was riveting.

Rarely on television can the roaring crowd be heard over the noisy race cars, but Junior Nation was at full throttle. The way Earnhardt drove his No. 88 Chevrolet with Harvick stalking him in his No. 4 Chevy illustrated just how talented Junior is.

One reason fans like Earnhardt is his enthusiasm for racing. He really seems to be enjoying himself.

Following Earnhardt's Pocono sweep, he has three victories this year, tying him with teammate Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt is second in points. This could be the year he finally breaks through with his first Cup series title. His racing confidence is at an all-time high.

With Earnhardt, Johnson and points leader Jeff Gordon zeroing in on the Chase, Kasey Kahne, the fourth Hendrick Motorsports driver, is in danger of being the odd Hendrick man out of the Chase. Kahne needs a win in the remaining five races before the Chase begins. He is 14th in points.

Since it's unlikely there will be 16 different winners this year to complete the 16-driver Chase field, the highest-ranking drivers without victories will fill out the Chase lineup. This year there are 11 different winners. Still, winning a race eases the stress for drivers and their teams.

With one top-five finish and four top-10s in the season's last seven races, Kahne is on the verge of visiting victory lane.

"The sooner the better," Kahne said before the Pocono race. "But having fast cars and the team working well, that has a lot more to do with it because if we do make the Chase we need to carry that into the final 10 races. So we are building there and things are getting better kind of on all fronts. I'm really happy about that.

"As far as the rest of the races, Watkins Glen, over the years I would say that is probably my toughest track as far as average finish. Not counting wrecks or any bad luck or that stuff, just straight-up average finish, I think Watkins Glen is one of my tougher tracks. It's going to be a place that we need to work really hard on to perform. After that, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta, Richmond, all those tracks we have won at and run really well at."

Kahne has no top-10 finishes there in 10 starts at the Glen. Despite his disappointing record there, Kahne says he likes racing at the historic track in south-central New York state.

"I like Watkins Glen a lot," he said. "I enjoy trying to figure that out and there are times in that race where we are pretty fast. We figured Sonoma [Calif.] out - the last six or seven times we have been there, we have been really good. I think that Sonoma is one of my best race tracks. I feel like in time we will hit on it [at the Glen] and it will click.

"I like Bristol a lot. I feel like we run really well there, especially in a longer race. Longer race runs and the night show seems like a pretty good track for me. Atlanta, we are up and down there, but I enjoy it. Richmond is tough to say and Michigan is strong."

Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle are two other veterans needing wins to guarantee Chase places. Kenseth, fourth in points, was running fifth midway in the Pocono race, then was caught up in the late 13-car wreck.

Asked if he is focusing on winning at one of the remaining tracks before the Chase, Kenseth, winner of a series-leading seven races last year, said, "It's always a moving target. Last year I felt like there weren't very many tracks that we didn't have a shot to win on. I really felt like if we did everything right - not every week last year, but a lot of weeks - that we could win.

"Certainly this year, even at some of the tracks that were great for us last year, we haven't been quite as good. I guess probably Bristol. I feel like since I've been at JGR [Joe Gibbs Racing], this is only my second year, but all three trips to Bristol I really felt like we could have won all three of those races."

Biffle's fifth-place finish at Pocono was his best since he was second at Talladega 12 races ago. He is 13th in points.

High-five for Gordon

While Kenseth tries to beat Jeff Gordon in every race, the Wisconsin native also admires what Gordon, a four-time Cup titlist with 90 career wins, has accomplished.

"When you look at almost anybody's career, and I say 'almost' because Jimmie Johnson seems to be the exception, but you see especially with Jeff, he's done way better than pretty much anyone else in the garage, so he's had a lot higher times," Kenseth said. "But he's also had some years that haven't been great and have probably been frustrating. I think you see everybody go through up and down times - most of us haven't been as fortunate as him to have that many up times.

"It's funny how fast things can change. A couple years ago all the rumblings were about Jeff retiring and his back hurts and he's not running as good and this [and] that. Now he's winning all the biggest races of the year and runs up front every week and is on the front of everybody's mind for trying to win another championship.

"He's had a great career and it's still rolling great. Me not being one of the young guys anymore [he's 42] and not nearly as old as Jeff [just turned 43] but not that far behind him, you like to see that group still winning and running good because you're part of that group and you want to keep doing that as long as you can."

Email: fleiscb@phillynews.com

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