With Chase nearing, Kahne needs to get on a roll
July 10, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Kasey Kahne stood at the far end of the lane, cradling the ball in front of him. The Hendrick Motorsports driver hunched slightly, took two long strides, and with a whip of the arm unleashed his second consecutive perfect strike.
"I came here a lot over the winter," Kahne said, referring to a bowling center in an area north of Charlotte where many NASCAR drivers live. And indeed, despite being a relative newcomer to the game, he already seems to have his form down pat -- as he showed Wednesday in a media outing in advance of the Aug. 3 GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway. If only things were as effortless on the race track, where the driver of Hendrick's No. 5 car is in the midst of a fight for his playoff life.
That's certainly the case after Sunday's rain-delayed event at Daytona International Speedway, where Kahne's hopes for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup suffered a double blow -- not only was he spun by Greg Biffle to trigger the monster 26-car wreck that marred the end of the race, but Aric Almirola scored an upset victory to ostensibly secure a Chase bid for his Richard Petty Motorsports organization, and take one of those golden tickets off the table in the process.
The end result made Almirola the 11th race winner to likely wrap up a spot in the 16-driver playoff, with eight weeks remaining in NASCAR's regular season. And the wreck not only totaled a contending No. 5 car, it dropped Kahne three spots to 18th in Sprint Cup points, and outside of Chase position for the time being. In the projected Chase outlook he's 20th, behind eight other drivers who are also winless but own a better standing in points.
"As soon as (Almirola) won, I was like, 'Dang it, that's one more spot it takes away.' But I also got his cell number the next day and texted him and said, 'Awesome job, man, way to go.' Because that’s a huge win for him and his team as well," Kahne said. "So I wasn't upset by any means about him winning. I thought it was really cool for them, and they're in the same position I'm in. That’s neat for them. But yeah, I thought about it as, that's one less spot, we better get rolling here."
Joey Logano can relate. The Team Penske driver may have two race victories and a secure Chase berth this season, but a year ago under the previous format he was just like Kahne, and one of those drivers on the outside of Chase position trying to claw his way back in.
"We've all been in that position before, feeling that pressure going up," Logano said. "It's not fun, believe me. I'm very fortunate to be in the position we're in with those two wins. And as you have new winners, like with Aric getting that win this week, that takes up one of those spots. And it gets tight. I don't think there will be 16 winners, but I think there will be maybe two guys who make it on points. If you're not in position to do that, you've got to start racing for wins at this point. You throw caution to the wind."
Kahne can sense it. He went to Daytona feeling fairly positive about his points position and his team's performance in recent weeks. He left knowing he's in a more precarious position. "It's narrowing up," he said. "There's still definitely some wild cards coming, where guys who haven’t won yet can absolutely win some of these races. So the points deal, it's getting less and less where guys are going to make it in by points, I think."
Is he worried? "I'm not worried yet," he said. "I think about it, but I'm not worried. I haven't lost any sleep over it yet."
Understandable, given the improved results Kahne has shown on average since his season-best third-place finish at Kansas in May. This weekend brings New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track where Kahne tested earlier this season and has won before. And the road to the Chase runs through several layouts -- like Pocono, Indianapolis, Michigan, Bristol and Atlanta -- where Kahne has historically been strong. "I think this stretch is pretty good," he said.
Still, Daytona was a setback. Kahne was running right behind the leaders on the backstretch when he was hit from behind from Biffle, igniting the biggest "Big One" many have seen in a long time. Although Kahne wasn't happy with the outcome -- not to mention the accompanying 27th-place finish -- he chalked the incident up to the nature of restrictor-plate competition.
"You go to Daytona and Talladega and you leave disappointed most of the time. Just the way those races play out, not much you can do," he said. "Me and Greg talked, and he's getting pushed from behind. I can't go any further because (Casey) Mears is coming down, and I don't want to wreck Mears. So Greg hits me because he can't slow up, and hits me the right-corner, which you can't do, and sends me spinning. It's just that style of racing. You can't really be mad at anyone, I don't think. Just kind of the way those races go, and I think all the teams and the drivers go into that place and know that."
Logano was also caught in the 26-car crash, but his two race wins enabled him to leave Daytona in a much more positive frame of mind.
"We weren't walking out like, 'Oh my god, this kills our chances.' That's what it was last year for us," said Logano, also at the Pocono bowling event. "... That's that pressure those guys are going through right now. I don't want to go through that at all. It's terrible. But it's part of our sport. It's part of any sport, trying to make the playoffs."
No wonder, then, Kahne was still stewing over the incident when he got home. "And then I got to my house and my sister and her three kids were swimming in my pool," he said. "So that changed everything. I grabbed a beer and was good to go."
And with that, the 16-time winner on NASCAR's top series went out to roll a few more frames. Kahne's game really picked up when he figured out how to spin the ball. In bowling as with the run-up to the Chase, so much is in the follow through.