Kasey Kahne is one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR today. He's got talent, matinee-idol looks and a marquee sponsor (Budweiser), he stars in commercials and, at every stop on the circuit, female fans line up by the dozens near the garage hoping for hugs. (He undoubtedly leads the series in most hugs given in 2009.) He would seem to have it all.
This is an article from the July 6, 2009 issue
But he doesn't. Not yet, at least. Because for the past two seasons Kahne, 29, has failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Currently 13th in the standings and trailing Juan Pablo Montoya by one point for the 12th and final spot in the Chase (which comprises the season's final 10 races), Kahne understands the harsh reality in NASCAR that popularity rarely lasts if you continue to miss the Chase (well, unless your name is Dale Earnhardt Jr.). That knowledge informed Kahne's every move in his late-race duel with Tony Stewart on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., on June 21. The leader for the final 33 laps, Kahne held off Stewart on four restarts—balancing his hunger for victory against the potential for a season-ruining misstep—to win his first race of 2009. It was a gutsy performance, underscoring that for drivers like Kahne, who are on the threshold of the Chase, the stakes are high and the margin for error slight.
"There is so much pressure to make the Chase," says Kahne. "It's there every day. Sponsors don't say anything directly to me, but I feel pressure to make it for them. I feel pressure from my team. I feel pressure from my fans. I feel it from everyone. The bottom line is if you don't make the Chase, then you haven't gotten the job done."
Greg Biffle, who's currently ninth in points, and who missed out on the Chase in 2006 and '07, puts it more bluntly: "If you don't get in [the Chase], heck, you're just another guy—a guy who can be replaced."
With nine races left before the start of this year's playoff, three drivers—Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson—have pulled away from the pack. Together they've won nine of the last 14 Cup titles, and barring a historic collapse, they should cruise into the Chase. Call them the Front-Runners. Behind them another dozen or so drivers at most have a realistic shot at becoming Chasers. They can be divided into three more categories: the Middle Men, the Bubble Boys and the Long Shots. Here's a breakdown of each group and the strategies drivers will employ between now and when the green flag falls on the Chase on Sept. 20 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
• The Front-Runners
These three drivers can do something over the next two months that the Bubble Boys can't: take chances and go all out for wins. (Each victory in the regular season translates into a 10-point bonus at the start of the Chase, when the points are reset to level the playing field.) So, late in a race one driver might change just two tires instead of four during a pit stop (saving time in exchange for track position but possibly compromising the car's handling) or try to stretch fuel mileage, the way Stewart did on June 7 at Pocono (Penn.) Raceway to steal a victory.
"We have flexibility because of where we are in points," says Stewart, who leads Gordon in the standings by 69 points. "We'll even practice with different things on Fridays in race trim to see if we can find something that will help us in the Chase. We'll be constantly looking forward. We couldn't necessarily do that if we were lower in points."
Stewart, who only has one win this season, no doubt will contend for several more this summer. He grew up racing on slick dirt tracks around the Midwest, and now, not surprisingly, when the temperatures rise and tracks become more sun-baked and slippery, Stewart heats up. He has 12 career Cup wins in July and August—more than any other current driver.
Better yet, though, might be peaking in the fall, during the Chase, as Johnson has while winning the last three titles. "When we visit tracks over the summer that traditionally haven't been my strongest," says Johnson, "we spend a lot of time preparing for the Chase."
That freedom is the luxury of being a front-runner.
• The Middle Men
The drivers in this group need to be especially cautious because one or two finishes of 30th or worse could cause them to tumble out of the top 12. If Kurt Busch (currently fourth in points), Carl Edwards (fifth), Denny Hamlin (sixth), Ryan Newman (seventh), Kyle Busch (eighth) and Biffle (ninth) can simply finish in the top 15 in each of the remaining nine regular-season races, they'll glide into the postseason.
"I can't afford to not finish a race [or] come in 30th," says Kyle Busch. "That would kill me in the standings. I can't take chances like the guys in front of me can."
Busch, the most aggressive driver on the circuit, has a disgusted expression as he says this, as if he just swallowed a bug. Driving conservatively runs counter to his racing nature. But he has struggled over the last two months with the handling of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, battling to get it to turn through the corners to his liking. Until that can be corrected, he'll be forced to sacrifice speed for security—a bargain that all of the Middle Men would be wise to make.
• The Bubble Boys
These are the drivers who will be gripping the wheel the tightest the rest of the way: Matt Kenseth (10th in points), Mark Martin (11th), Montoya (12th), Kahne (13th) and David Reutimann (14th). This group, separated by just 17 points, will be forced to take chances, to try exotic setups, to make that attempt at a three-wide pass late in a race because they can no longer afford to be conservative and settle for that top-15 finish.
"I want to be around this series for years to come," says Reutimann, who, though he's 39, is in only his second full-time Cup season. "The only way for me to make sure that happens is to make the Chase. We can't panic, but if we're not in the top 12 the closer we get to the Chase, we'll be forced to get more aggressive."
Reutimann may have an ace in the hole in his Chase quest, though. As the only Toyota driver on the bubble, he'll have the substantial resources of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) supporting him. Though TRD has trimmed its budget by about 20% this season in response to the global recession, it hasn't cut its spending in the Cup series as dramatically as Chevy, Dodge and Ford have. So if Reutimann stays close to the 12th spot, he'll receive an abundance of assistance from the 45 engineers at TRD as he tries to become the first driver from Michael Waltrip Racing to qualify for the postseason. "It's very, very important to us to get David into the Chase," says Lee White, the president of TRD. "We'll do everything we can to make that happen."
Kahne, who drives for Dodge-backed Petty Motorsports and is clearly benefiting from the new and more powerful R6 Dodge engine, will also challenge for the final playoff spot. So too will Montoya, who pilots the number 42 Chevy for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. A native of Colombia and a former Formula One driver, Montoya struggled with the heavier—by some 2,000 pounds—stock cars during his first two NASCAR seasons. But in 2009 he has begun to acquire what they call in the garage "the feel": a driver's ability to make the car behave as if it's an extension of his body. In his last seven starts he has five top 10s, two more than he had in all of '08, and he now has a chance to become the first non-U.S.-born driver to qualify for the Chase. Look for the notoriously aggressive Montoya to make a charge at two of his best tracks: at Indy (July 26), where he took second in '07; and on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y. (Aug. 9), where he finished fourth last year.
• The Long Shots
A better name might be the Wait Till Next Year Gang. Since the Chase format was adopted in 2004, no driver who was outside the top 14 in points after the 17th race of the season—where things now stand—has made the field. This means drivers such as Clint Bowyer (currently 15th), Jeff Burton (16th), Brian Vickers (17th), Marcos Ambrose (18th) and Earnhardt (19th) will have to buck history to have a shot.
"This season has pretty much been a f------ nightmare," Earnhardt says. "I hate missing the Chase. It's like being in college and trying to get into the cool fraternity house and getting passed over. It just sucks. And that's why we're going to do our damndest to get in. I won't take any s--- on the track, and I'll race as hard as I can."
Owner Rick Hendrick has already replaced Tony Eury Jr. with Lance McGrew as Earnhardt's crew chief, on May 28, and he has ordered the organization's lead chassis engineer, Rex Stump, to work solely with Little E's team. But since he's trailing the 12th spot by 285 points, it would take a couple of wins and more than a little luck to get Junior back in the hunt.
"I'm a realist, and I know it won't be easy to make the Chase," Earnhardt says. "But if we can just start running better, we'll at least feel better about heading into next year."
Indeed, Earnhardt and the other Long Shots will be able to start looking toward 2010 within a few weeks if they don't soon mount a charge. These drivers should follow the Jeff Gordon model of 2005. That year Gordon missed the Chase, but over the final three months of the season he and crew chief Steve Letarte, with no points race to worry about any longer, tested different setups each week, hoping to hit on something that would make Gordon feel more comfortable behind the wheel and propel them into the next season. It worked: Gordon blazed to three top five finishes in the final five races of '05 and then began the '06 season with three top fives in the first six events.
Each of the next nine races will have an official winner, the guy holding up the trophy. But behind him, more than a dozen intriguing races will have been run within the race, as drivers and crew chiefs—depending on where they are in the standings—each pursue a strategy that can bring victory even in defeat. Because they're all looking for a finish that they hope will propel them to the starting line that counts, on Sept. 20.
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Cup analysis from Lars Anderson plus Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus
A Dozen to Go
SI's picks for who'll be in the running come Chase time
1. Tony Stewart CURRENT STANDING: 1ST
The year's most consistent driver, with 13 top 10s, Stewart will become the first driver-owner to qualify for the playoffs.
2. Jimmie Johnson 3RD
The three-time defending champ has two wins in '09. Look for him to get a couple more—even as he preps for Chase venues.
3. Jeff Gordon 2ND
His nagging lower-back pain may be the only worry for Gordon, who has been first or second in points since February.
4. Carl Edwards 5TH
A nine-time winner in 2008, Edwards has yet to reach Victory Lane in '09, but he appears poised for a checkered-flag streak.
5. Ryan Newman 7TH
Driving for Stewart Haas, Flyin' Ryan is having his best season since 2005. He has eight top 10s, including five top fives.
6. Kurt Busch 4TH
The 2004 champion won at Atlanta in March and has three top-eight finishes in his last five starts.
7. Mark Martin 11TH
If not for horrific luck early in the season—two blown engines and a cut tire—ol' MM would probably be in the top three now.
8. Kyle Busch 8TH
Busch has three wins already, and as long as he doesn't let his aggressive racing get the better of him, he'll make the field.
9. Greg Biffle 9TH
The Roush Racing Fords have not been as strong as last year, but the consistent Biffle always gets the most from his ride.
10. Denny Hamlin 6TH
The streaky Hamlin—he went six straight races without a top 10 but also had back-to-back second places—is a wild card.
11. Matt Kenseth 10TH
After winning twice to open the season, Kenseth has had some setbacks, but his conservative approach should pay off.
12. David Reutimann 14TH
Reutimann got his first career win at Lowe's in May. His biggest hurdle will be the road course at Watkins Glen on Aug. 2.