Kasey Kahne will never forget the moment his life changed. It was January 2012, and he was standing in the main office at Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, N.C.. Kahne had recently signed a three-year contract with the most dominant team in NASCAR, and now an administrative assistant at Hendrick had handed him a key card that would open every door in the sprawling facility. Yet this credit card-sized admission slip didn't just turn the locks, it also opened up a delicious possibility: the chance for Kahne to win the Sprint Cup trophy.
"The second I was handed that access card was when I realized I was on a great team," he said. "For someone who grew up dreaming about winning championships, that was all I could ask for."
Fourteen months later, Kahne is the hottest driver in NASCAR. A week after finishing second at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kahne took the checkered flag last Sunday at Bristol (TN) Motor Speedway. I wrote a story for SI on Kahne during his rookie season of 2004 -- the scene of him racing his brother on a four-wheeler in the shadow of Mount Rainier in Washington is still vivid in my mind -- and back then I forecasted that Kahne would win multiple Cup titles. That hasn't happened, but now at age 32 and currently seventh in the standings, he is in the best position of his career to be a champion.
This weekend Kahne and Cup series will stop at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., a two-mile oval where Kane has finished in the top 10 in two of his last three starts. It says here he'll do better than that on Sunday. Kahne is my pick to take the checkers.
Here are four other drivers to watch when the green flag waves an hour northeast of Los Angeles:
Even after finishing 22nd at Bristol last Sunday and falling from first to third in the standings, Johnson remains the driver to beat in 2013. The No. 48 team is the gold standard of NASCAR in the 21st century. No matter the size or banking of the track, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, always seem to be ahead of the rest of the garage.
Of all the tracks on the Cup schedule that Johnson has raced on at least 10 times, his average finish at Fontana is higher (5.4) than at any other venue. He grew up in a trailer park in El Cajon, a suburb San Diego, and Johnson clearly relishes racing in his home state. Pencil him in for another top five run on Sunday.
If you believe that racing is largely a game of luck and circumstance -- as I do -- then Stewart is due. He had arguably the fastest car in the Daytona 500, but he got caught up in an accident that wasn't of his making and finished 41st. Last Sunday at Bristol, he was involved in another wreck and came in 31st. After four races, Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, is 24th in the standings.
But it's far too early to pen the obituary on Stewart's 2013 season. A former dirt track racer who loves slippery tracks, he has a long history in the Cup series of flourishing in the summer months when the sunbaked tracks are slick. He's also won two of the last three races at Fontana.
There's a strong feeling in the garage right now that Kenseth, a soft-spoken native of Wisconsin, is poised to win several races in the coming weeks. Two weeks ago, he took the checkered flag at Las Vegas, an intermediate-length track that has similar handling characteristics to Fontana. The 2012 winner at Vegas (Stewart) also took the checkers at Auto Club Speedway last year. So in other words: Beware of Kenseth on Sunday.
A two-time winner at Fontana, Kenseth came in fourth in this race two years ago. Expect a top-five run from him on Sunday.
The only two drivers who have finished in the top 10 in each of the first four races of 2013 are Brad Keselowski (the current points leader) and Earnhardt (second). As I wrote in the magazine last week, Earnhardt has a very real chance to win his first Cup championship this season.
This is an important race for the No. 88 team. To capture a title, it is critical to perform well on intermediate-length tracks like Fontana. Earnhardt finished third here last spring.