He was shaken, understandably so. Minutes after crashing head-on, frighteningly, into the inside wall at Daytona International Speedway last Saturday night, Kasey Kahne ambled out of the infield care center and had a microphone stuck in his face. He'd been running second in the closing laps of the 400-mile race when Jimmie Johnson blocked Marcos Ambrose, causing Ambrose to ram into Kahne and send him careening out of control. Kahne absorbed the hardest, most painful, most violent hit of the night.
With glassy eyes, Kahne tried to summon a smile as he spoke -- but he just couldn't. "I was following Jimmie a lot throughout the race and felt like I had a really good car," he said. "But the next thing I know I got slammed and shot left, so it was the end of our night. It's kind of how these races go. You don't have a lot of control over some of the things that happen here."
Kahne has been NASCAR's hard-luck driver on restrictor-plate tracks in 2013. After finishing 36th in the season-opening Daytona 500, he crashed early at Talladega in May and came in 42nd. Then on Saturday, in a race that he appeared capable of winning with about 15 miles remaining, he finished 32nd. With eight events left in the regular season, Kahne is 12th in the standings and currently holding down the final wild card spot that advances to the Chase.
Yet a close examination of Kahne's statistics this season reveals a driver who seems able to compete for the championship. Through 18 races, he ranks first in the Sprint Cup series with 521 of the fastest laps run and first in fastest speed in traffic (6.11 average ranking). He's third in average green-flag speed (5.846 average ranking) and he's led the fourth most total laps (400). This is a numerical portrait of a top-three driver, not one who is in a fight simply to make the playoffs.
But now that Daytona is in his rearview mirror, Kahne should be exceptionally fast as the series moves this weekend to Loudon, N.H., and New Hampshire International Speedway. He won this race last year, and on Sunday he'll be piloting chassis No. 5-769, which is the same car that he drove to Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway in March. What's more, Kahne typically flourishes on intermediate-length tracks such as New Hampshire, which is a flat one-mile oval. Nine of his 15 career wins have come on intermediates.
Less than three months ago, after Kahne had charged to a second place finish at Kansas in late April, he was second in the standings. But since that afternoon in the Midwest, he has wound up 20th or worse in six of the 10 races and dropped 10 spots in the standings.
But it says here that Kahne will experience a reversal of fortune in New England. The numbers indicate he's due, and I think he'll dominate on Sunday by leading the most laps and cruising to the checkered flag. Then, finally, we'll see that telegenic smile that sponsors -- not to mention the gentler sex -- just can't seem to get enough of.
Here are four other drivers to watch at New Hampshire when the engines fire for race No. 19 of the 2013 Sprint Cup season:
1. Jimmie Johnson
If not for his uncharacteristic struggles on late-race restarts this season, Johnson could easily be sitting on seven or eight wins right now. As it stands, he took his fourth checkered flag of the season at Daytona last Saturday (he's tied with Matt Kenseth for most victories in the series) and he's built such a big cushion over the rest of the field (49 points ahead of Clint Bowyer) that Johnson could hang out on his living room couch in his mansion in Charlotte for a race and still own the No. 1 spot in standings.
Johnson leads the series in top-10 finishes (12), laps led (1,020), averaging finishing position (8.9), and earnings ($4,570, 502). He should pad all of these numbers on Sunday at New Hampshire, where he has three career wins in 22 starts. Johnson finished second there last fall, and I think he'll duplicate that effort this weekend.
2. Matt Kenseth
Not long ago, Kenseth joked that he was one of the worst qualifiers in the sport. Well, that has changed dramatically this year, as his 7.9 average starting spot trails only Kyle Busch (6.1).
But that's not the only thing this year that's been different about Kenseth, who in the offseason moved from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth has built has career on being as consistent as anyone in the sport, yet this year he's been wildly inconsistent. He has four victories (which happen to be his only top-five finishes of the season) and he has four finishes of 30th or worse. Despite being the only driver who appears to possess the raw speed to drive wheel-to-wheel with Johnson for the championship right now, Kenseth is only sixth in the standings.
So he has been a mystery. But since he came in 33rd at Daytona, he'll likely be extremely fast this weekend in New Hampshire. That's been his MO in 2013: flounder one week, flourish the next. Kenseth likely won't win on Sunday -- he's never reached Victory lane in 26 career starts in Loudon -- but he should be near the front as the laps wind down.
3. Brad Keselowski
The defending Cup champion is officially in trouble. After coming in 21st at Daytona, he's now 13th in the standings and fading like he's lost his top gear.
In Keselowski's last five starts -- at Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Kentucky and Daytona -- his average finish has been 20.6. What was his average finish in these five races last year, just as he was revving up to win the title? It was 10.4.
Keselowski is only 11 points behind the tenth-place driver, Tony Stewart. This means he's only 11-positions on the track, in theory, from qualifying for the Chase. But while Stewart has been heating up during the summer, Keselowski has cooled.
After his poor run at Daytona, he said he was confident that he and his No. 2 Miller Lite team would be formidable at New Hampshire, where in his last three starts he's finished sixth or better. We'll see, but this is clear: Time is starting to run out on the defending Cup winner.
4. Kurt Busch
As I wrote in my midseason team rankings last week, Busch has been the feel-good story in NASCAR this year, which is an odd twist given his long history of boorish behavior. But driving for a single-car team that has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing, Busch has Furniture Row Motorsports, an organization that only had one top-five finish in 2012, on the cusp of advancing to its first Chase.
In the last three weeks, Busch has finished fourth at Sonoma (a road course), sixth at Kentucky (an intermediate-length track) and sixth at Daytona (a superspeedway). The 2004 Cup champion, he has shown impressive versatility over this stretch and since Sonoma he's risen from 20th to ninth in the standings.
Look for Busch to fast again this weekend. He has three wins in 24 starts on the one-mile oval.