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Don't overlook Kasey Kahne for the 2013 Sprint Cup championship

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Kasey Kahne's fourth-place finish in 2012 may give him the boost and experience he needs to contend for a championship.

He's not the favorite and shouldn't be considered among the leading contenders to win the championship. Instead, he says, call him an underdog.

Kasey Kahne's reasoning for this is simple -- he's never won a NASCAR championship.

But that could change this year.

Many anticipate Jimmie Johnson recapturing his throne, Brad Keselowski repeating or Matt Kenseth returning to championship form with a new team; however, few speak of Kahne's title hopes.

Then again, how many people thought Keselowski would win the crown at this time a year ago?

Don't make the same mistake with Kahne.

Keselowski's and Tony Stewart's championship runs the past two seasons overshadowed Kahne's run in the Chase each of those years. He scored one win, 10 top-fives and 13 top-10s in the last 20 Chase races for an average finish of 8.9. While Jimmie Johnson has more wins (three) during that time, he has fewer top-fives (nine) and fewer top-10s (11) than Kahne, along with an average finish that was worse (13.0).

"You think about his entire career, he gets to the fall and gets on runs,'' Johnson said of Kahne. "I knew if we could get him in the Chase [last year], he was going to be a serious threat. You get into his sweet spot of tracks.''

Last year's Chase performance could be what Kahne needs to contend for this year's crown. Until 2012 Kahne had never come close to a championship battle in his nine previous seasons in the Sprint Cup Series. While he's still never felt the pressure -- or mind games that someone like Stewart enjoys playing with a title foe -- all the way to the finale in Homestead, Fla., he has a better sense of it after finishing a career-high fourth in the points.

A similar experience benefited Keselowski before his championship in 2012. He finished fifth in the 2011, gained a sense of perspective which helped him during his championship race.

Kahne experienced some of the same sensations last year.

"You can learn from those things,'' Kahne said. "It's all stuff that helps when you're in that time you can take advantage of it and get it done.''

Kenny Francis, who has been Kahne's crew chief since 2006, says the experience will help him. He admits he could have made at least one better decision in the Chase last year.

"We weren't really in a position to win the Chase,'' Francis said. "I wasn't probably as focused on points as I should have been, so I felt like at Homestead I kind of made a calculated gamble that didn't pan out and probably if I hadn't done that we would have ended up second [in points]. I think that was a big mistake I made.''

It's decisions such as when to pit or how to race that can impact a championship and both Kahne and Francis learned lessons.

Kahne is also in a better position than ever to win a championship this season. In his second year at Hendrick Motorsports, he has the equipment and resources he's never had before, along with a level of comfort that was missing last season.

"Going into last year I just felt I had to be the fastest guy,'' Kahne said. "I was in a new car driving for a team that had won tons of championships and had tons of wins. I just knew I had to be the fastest guy and pushed as hard as I could every lap of practice and every lap of the race and I kind of lost the whole mindset of it's 500 laps and you don't have to be the fastest guy now, you need to be the fastest guy later. I made some mistakes because of that.''

No mistake was bigger than at Phoenix in the second race of the year, a miscue that Kahne still shakes his head about. After finishing 29th in the Daytona 500 because of an accident, Kahne sought to climb back up in the points at Phoenix. He qualified 10th and was running second when he bounced off the wall within the first 25 laps. His day was lost and he finished

"Once I did that,'' Kahne said of his Phoenix crash, "I really changed my mindset from there on. That really got to me what I did there. I felt I did have the best car that day or one of them and I just drove it into the wall. It wasn't smart. I didn't make that mistake again.''

He's also learned as much about the new car as just about any other competitor. Kahne says he's driven the car in six tests at four different tracks.

"I feel like I'm working harder these days as far as racing-wise, being prepared mentally and understanding the cars and the changes,'' he said. "I feel like I've worked harder this year than any year before.''

When the previous car, the so-called Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won the first five races with it. It's not unrealistic to think the organization will be among the early leaders with this car, and that could benefit Kahne as much as his teammates.

If nothing else, car owner Rick Hendrick expects his teams to contend for championships. He said before last season he would be "really disappointed'' if all four teams didn't make the Chase. They met that goal. This year, he feels as strongly they can repeat and have one of their teams win the title.

It those expectations -- more than at any other team along his winding road to Hendrick Motorsports -- that carry Kahne.

"As a driver here ... you know the opportunity he gives us from all sides,'' he said of Hendrick. "You want to make him happy. You want to make those expectations reality. I feel like we can do that.''

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