Kasey Kahne is not in Kansas anymore, though he probably wishes he were, especially when it comes to his state of mind. The Sprint Cup Series departed Kansas Speedway on April 21 with Kahne sitting in second place in the point standings and on a roll of six consecutive finishes of 11th or better. As he roared into his second season with Hendrick Motorsports, it appeared certain that Kahne would be a legitimate contender for this year's Cup championship.
Less than two months later, he's scrambling to even be eligible for a shot at the title. Since leaving Kansas, Kahne has finished better than 17th only once in the past seven races. He has finished worse than 35th three times during that span, including this past Sunday at Michigan, where he was leading by more than four seconds midway through the race before a cut tire sent him hard into the wall and ended his day.
Suddenly, Kahne finds himself barely clinging to the final spot in the 12-car Chase for the Championship, a mere nine points ahead of 16th place Jeff Gordon. And while his victory early this season at Bristol does give him an edge when it comes to capturing one of the Chase's two wild card berths, Kahne is still in a precarious situation that seemed unlikely back in April.
Kahne, however, knew this slump was a possibility, primarily because his career has been filled with periods of inconsistency. In 2006, for example, he had a season-best six wins, but finished eighth in the point standings, partly because he failed to crack the top 10 in nearly half the races and had six DNFs (which was more than the top four finishers in the point standings combined).
In 2008, Kahne won twice, but managed only 14 top-10 finishes in 36 starts and failed to make the Chase. Last year, he was still in strong contention for the title with only three races remaining, then finished outside the top 20 in two of them.
"I think one of my biggest downfalls since I have been in this series is being consistent," Kahne said. "That is something I've worked on. I have really wanted to get better for awhile. In order to win the championship you need to win a little bit more, and consistency is the only way to do it. You can't fall out of races and get in wrecks and things like that."
Jason Leffler's death underscores issue
It should come as no surprise that former NASCAR regular Jason Leffler was competing in an open-wheel dirt track race last week. Leffler, who died after a crash in a sprint car event at Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey, might have been a two-time winner in the Nationwide Series, but he was quick to admit that he was never a stock car racer at heart.
Leffler told me a few years ago that his childhood racing hero was IndyCar great Parnelli Jones, who was devastated by the news of Leffler's death. He said his idea of an enjoyable Saturday night was to watch the sprint car races at Ascot Park near his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. Back then, NASCAR was not even on his radar.
"All I wanted to be was a midget and sprint car racer. That's what I loved," said Leffler, who won three consecutive USAC Midget championships from 1997-99 before making the move to NASCAR. "I had no aspirations of [running NASCAR]. At that time, there weren't many guys [from California] who got the opportunity. I just wanted to win midget and sprint car races and USAC races."
So when his NASCAR opportunities began to dry up last season, Leffler decided to move forward by taking a step back in time. His personal website was led by a story with a headline that stated, "Jason Leffler will be going back to his grass roots in the open wheel world." In the story, Leffler was quoted as saying, "I'm ready to get going and really looking forward to some real racing again."
The only comfort one can take from last week's tragedy is that at least he was doing what he loved. But that does little to ease the sadness of his death, especially following reports that Leffler -- who was the father of a 5-year-old son -- had no life insurance. Funds already are being set up in Charlie Dean Leffler's name. Still, the fact that a person in such a high-risk occupation did not have any life insurance is disturbing.
NASCAR (and USAC) needs to establish some form of insurance fund for its drivers, who -- unlike athletes in most professional sports leagues -- are considered independent contractors and do not receive any sort of benefits from the organizing body. Racing is safer than ever these days and deaths have thankfully become a rarity. An insurance fund would be a small price for the sport to pay on the occasions when its drivers pay the ultimate price for participating.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- Another strong run ended with a late tire issue at Michigan that dropped him from second all the way down to 28th. Even though Johnson has now finished outside the top 15 in three of the past four races, his team remains the best in the business.
2. Carl Edwards (2nd) -- Edwards' eighth-place showing at Michigan extends his streak of consecutive top-20 finishes to 14. Johnson proved how quickly a driver can lose more than 20 positions in a race, so Edwards' consistency this season has been impressive.
3. Clint Bowyer (3rd) -- He's on a run of 10 consecutive top 20s, with six top 10s during that span. He and Edwards need to contend for victories more often, but there is no doubt that Bowyer has established himself as a legitimate threat to win the championship.
4. Kevin Harvick (4th) -- If Edwards or Bowyer falter even slightly in the coming weeks, Harvick is poised to move past them in the power rankings. His runner-up finish at Michigan gives him six top 10s in the past seven races, with two victories.
5. Tony Stewart (9th) -- Here comes Stewart, right on schedule. You can set your calendar each year to his warm-weather surge. After managing only one top-10 finish through the first 11 races, he has four top 10s and three top fives in the past four races.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5th) -- Earnhardt was leading at Michigan when a blown engine sent him tumbling to a 37th-place finish, his second engine failure in the past four races. He is still seventh in the point standings, but only 43 points ahead of 15th-place Aric Almirola, meaning a Chase berth is far from certain.
7. Matt Kenseth (6th) -- Kenseth's sixth-place finish at Michigan was his first top 10 since winning at Darlington more than a month ago. He's capable of quickly moving back up the rankings if his team can regain the performance it demonstrated through the first third of the season.
8. Kyle Busch (7th) -- Busch drops a spot in the rankings only because of Stewart's revival. He's finished fourth, sixth and fourth the past three weeks and is definitely capable of moving closer to the top of the rankings soon.
9. Greg Biffle (unranked) -- It is easy to forget that just two months ago, Biffle was third in the point standings. He then had a stretch of six consecutive races without a top-10 finish. But he followed his runner-up showing at Pocono two weeks ago with a victory at Michigan, propelling him from 13th to eighth in the standings.
10. Joey Logano (unranked) -- We are nudging Logano slightly ahead of his Penske Racing teammate, Brad Keselowski, simply because Logano has been better lately. Over the past seven races, Logano has five top-10 finishes (including four in a row), compared to only one for Keselowski.