Kahne's hot streak could prove to be a referendum on points racing
CONCORD, N.C. -- One of NASCAR's greatest moments hangs over this season, casting a shadow that clouds the sport and dwells within some drivers. A third of the way through the season, nobody has found a way to make it go away.
When Kasey Kahne eased his Chevrolet into Victory Lane after his first win with Hendrick Motorsports, many noted that this was the fastest Coca-Cola 600 to go the full distance. Read another way, it was a yet another Sprint Cup race with few cautions to bunch the field and build drama.
The debate has grown in recent weeks about why cautions are down more than a third from a year ago. With few distractions, such as feuds or fantastic finishes, the discussion continues.
Some cite aerodynamics that prevent the cars from getting close enough to make contact at big tracks or note that the drivers have improved. Others believe last year's title race, which provided NASCAR the championship moment it sought, gave the sport a hangover it has yet to soothe.
Tony Stewart won five of the final 10 races last season to finish tied with Carl Edwards for the crown. Stewart captured the championship based on the tiebreaker of having the most wins.
Ironically, the message some competitors read was not that victories were the path to a championship, but that the risk isn't always worth the chance of losing positions. Almost like playing a prevent defense in football. Sure, Stewart won by virtue of his win total, but those victories came in the Chase. Until the playoffs start, drivers seem content letting the race come to them.
That doesn't mean that drivers aren't taking chances -- they still do. It's just that they might not be taking as many chances that create the contact or action some fans desire. Accordingly this season has featured many lengthy green-flag runs. Sunday night's race was no different with a number of green-flag pit stops.
Denny Hamlin, who finished second to Kahne Sunday, blamed the points system for the racing fans see now.
"I think everyone is so concerned with points nowadays," he said. "If you wreck and you finish in the 30s, you're going to take 10 races to get that back. I think everyone's just a little bit more patient on restarts as crazy as that sounds."
So if that's the case, then why wasn't this an issue last season, the first season of the new points system?
Hamlin said drivers learned what hurt them last year and aren't going to repeat their mistakes.
"I think everyone just recognizes the points system and sees how it works," he said. "We know you finish in the 30s, it's almost like not even showing up."
Hamlin's teammate, Kyle Busch, agreed. Others also have shared that opinion.
That's why Kahne's run over the next few months could be so important for NASCAR. He'll have the chance to prove that a driver can rebound from a poor start and make the Chase.
It's not like this hasn't been done before. Brad Keselowski was 25th in points after last year's Coca-Cola 600. He won the following week at Kansas and it took another victory at Pocono eight races later for him to climb into the top 20 in points (the cutoff for wild-card eligibility). For some reason, Keselowski's comeback seems to be forgotten by those who blame the points system for the racing this season.
Kahne's run could affirm that a driver can recover from a poor start to make the Chase, and Kahne isn't as far back as Keselowski was a year ago.
Kahne's sixth consecutive top-10 finish moved him to 15th in the points. He was 31st before this streak started, the victim of accidents and mechanical issues in the first six races. Kahne finished no better than 14th in those races. Since, he's finished no worse than eighth.
"I know how much it means to him," teammate Jeff Gordon said of Kahne's run. "There was a lot of pressure on a guy like him. He waits, what two years to come over to Hendrick and he gets here and didn't have the greatest start to the season, but now you're really starting to see them click and gain momentum and show what they're capable of."
Kahne is 42 points out of 10th place -- the final guaranteed spot for the Chase. Two wild-card spots are available for any driver between 11th and 20th. If the season ended today, those spots would be taken by Keselowski, based on his two victories, and Ryan Newman, based on his one victory and his place in the standings (13th, seven points ahead of Kahne).
Kahne has plenty of time to overcome those deficits with 14 races left until the Chase field is set.
"You have to be consistent in this sport," Kahne said after his 13th career Cup victory. "It's how the points are. If you're crashing, you're not finishing, you're losing points. The Chase is what it's all about."
That's the way it's been since the Chase's debut in 2004 no matter the type of point system.
While some suggest that the limited caution laps have given teams fewer chances to work on their car on pit road, Kahne's crew chief, Kenny Francis, differs.
"I work on the car more on green-flag stops than yellow-flag stops,'' he said. "On a green-flag stop, the field is spread out. If you take a couple of extra seconds working on your car, you don't lose as many positions. If you do that under yellow, you lose a bunch of track position.
"Under green, you might only lose one or two positions. If you make your car better, you'll make that up. That's the way I approach it."
A novel of way of looking at the situation.
For those stuck in the past, maybe they just need a different perspective.