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Kahne could continue big push toward chase with Brickyard victory

The Legends of the Brickyard have made their final stop on the road to the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard, with Kasey Kahne scoring his second victory of the season in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 on Sunday, July 15 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. By scoring his second NASCAR Sprint Cup win of the season, Kahne has all but locked up one of the two wild-card positions in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The only thing standing between the stars of NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a “rest area,” as the series takes its last off weekend of the season July 21-22.

When NASCAR adopted the current Chase format that gives the final two wild-card positions to drivers with the most victories in positions 11-20 after the 26th race of the season, it created a unique situation in which positions 11 and 12 could be sealed before many of the spots in the top 10. There are two ways to make the Chase: Finish in the top 10 in points after the 400-lap race Sept. 9 at Richmond or get at least two or more wins if out of the top 10.

Kahne entered Sunday’s race at New Hampshire 16th in points with one victory and in a tight struggle with 12th-place Kyle Busch, 14th-place Joey Logano and 15th-place Ryan Newman, all with one win apiece. By scoring his second win of the season, Kahne jumped ahead of those three drivers in the race for the wild card. And with Brad Keselowski dropping to 10th in the standings with three victories, if Keselowski falls to 11th between now and Richmond, his three victories this season would earn a wild card and Kahne’s two wins would virtually lock up the other wild card.

Either way, Kahne’s second win of the season – his first at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and 14th career Cup win – plays a major role in determining the makeup of this year’s Chase.

“It doesn’t get us in the Chase yet, but it helps with wins here and at Charlotte,” Kahne said after his New Hampshire win. “It was a good race. I started out fast right at the start just racing with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

“Track position was pretty big. Denny was really tough throughout the whole race. When we got two tires there at the end, put us first, I was feeling really good about where we were at. I slid around for the first 10 laps, and then I knew I needed to get as big of a lead as I could because I knew Denny would be coming at some point.”

Nothing boosts confidence better than winning. So by scoring a victory in the race before the Brickyard, Kahne could be in position to get his first career victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Kahne, from Enumclaw, Wash., is no stranger to Indianapolis. He was a star in the United States Auto Club (USAC) Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown ranks before he headed to NASCAR, first in the Nationwide Series in 2002 and then up to Cup with team owner Ray Evernham in 2004.

Kahne was a favorite of USAC fans at Lucas Oil Raceway Park in Clermont, Ind., and the other stops on the grass-roots, open-wheel racing schedule. And many of those fans continue to root for Kahne at IMS, where he has two top-five and four top-10 finishes in eight starts, including a best-finish of second in 2005 after finishing fourth in his rookie season.

After back-to-back seventh-place finishes at the Brickyard in 2007 and 2008, Kahne has finished 13th in 2010 and 18th in 2011 at IMS and looks to improve that this year. That’s because he is driving for the most successful team in Brickyard 400 history – Hendrick Motorsports – with seven wins in the 18 NASCAR races at the Speedway.

Getting a victory at Indianapolis and into the Chase would be two of his goals entering this season with Hendrick Motorsports.

“I'd say I felt really confident coming into the season, jumping into such a fast race car,” Kahne said. “But I also knew, myself and Kenny (Francis, his crew chief) talked last year that it's not going to be easy. We still have to figure out how to go fast. We just have a lot of good people to work with now. I felt like we've had speed since the drop of the first green flag. I made mistakes, and we've had some issues on some of those DNF's. Other than that, we've been fast all year. It's nice we've been able to put 10 or 11 top 10s, 13 or 14 weeks together, something like that, since kind of that horrible start.

“I feel good about where we're at now. We just have to stay consistent, stay after it, keep putting ourself in position, and hopefully win a couple more races.”

When Kahne arrived at Hendrick, he brought his longtime crew chief, Kenny Francis, with him. The ability to arrive as a package deal has been beneficial.

“We took a lot of our ideas to Hendrick Motorsports,” Francis said. “We finished the year off really strong last year. When we came over there, we had a lot of fresh ideas that we had incorporated into the cars. That took a little bit of doing, getting that stuff rolling, as it always does. We had some speed. We just had a few issues. We crashed when we shouldn't have crashed. We had some engines break. We had a few bad pit calls that got us messed up, poor position, then got in a wreck. Things like that happen.

“All in all, we knew the cars were really fast, and we had a good thing coming together. It's just a matter of getting all the gears meshing. We kind of started doing a lot better here lately. Even like at Michigan, we had an accident there. We were kind of experimenting with some stuff that didn't work. All in all, I think we got some good fundamentals that we're working from that has helped us a lot.”

A win in the Brickyard would solidify Kahne’s efforts to make the Chase. His victory Sunday moved him to 12th in the Cup standings.

“It’s probably never enough,” Kahne said. “But I think three wins would put you in a real good spot. Two helps, but three would put you in a real good spot. We're going to stay after it. We have some really good tracks coming up.  I like my car a lot, so... I think we'll be in good shape.

“Myself, I thought when we won Charlotte, that really boosted our team a lot. Charlotte to me was a big turning point for us. I got our team really excited and going. Today is just another bonus. This should give the team some more confidence, myself some more confidence and carry some momentum into these final how many are left.”

And there is no bigger race in the “Race to the Chase” than at the Brickyard. So look for Kahne to be full-speed ahead in an attempt to claim the big win and continue that momentum into the Chase.
 

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