It has been a strange year for Kasey Kahne.
He began 2012 embroiled in a national controversy when he tweeted his thoughts after seeing a woman breastfeed her baby in public. To say the least, Kahne was vilified by thousands of women around the world, many of them NASCAR and Kahne fans.
One response in particular riled Kahne so much that he wound up calling one of his over 100,000 loyal Twitter followers a "dumb b----" about the whole breastfeeding episode, drawing even greater controversy to his camp.
Then, once the season began, Kahne found himself in the best equipment he's ever driven, courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports, yet struggled to find consistency. Eventually, things turned around as Kahne won two races and ultimately qualified for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup as one of two wild-card entries in the 12-driver field.
This is only the third time in the Chase's nine-year existence—which coincidentally matches Kahne's tenure in the Sprint Cup series—that the Enumclaw, Wash., native has qualified for NASCAR's playoffs. The other two times he made the Chase, he was a virtual non-entity, finishing eighth in 2006 and 10th in 2009, his last appearance in the Chase until this season.
And while much of the NASCAR world has been focusing on Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson in the first three races of the Chase, Kahne has been flying so far under the radar that one might wonder if he even is still in the Chase.
Not only is Kahne indeed still in the Chase, he has the potential to become either a dark horse or spoiler in the remaining seven races, starting with Sunday's race at Talladega, which has become the wild card of all wild cards in the Chase.
That's right, Kahne could go either way. But whichever direction he goes, it's pretty clear that the championship will have to go through him—that is, if he doesn't rally and take the title outright by himself—which is still a possibility.
"Talladega is one of those races that could kind of wipe some of it out or open up the points or make them even closer," Kahne said. "So it's tough to say, but I would say the competition in the Sprint Cup Series right now is as competitive as it's been since I've been in the sport. It's hard to gain points, it's hard to get away. Those same guys are running good each week, so it's hard to make points on them or gain points back if you need them."
Kahne is in a perfect position to strike at 'Dega, entering the weekend in a tie for fifth place with Tony Stewart, both drivers just 32 points behind series leader Keselowski.
And with so much attention placed upon Keselowski, Hamlin and Johnson, Kahne has been content to wait for that one big breakout move that could throw the standings into a tizzy.
"I think we've done really well so far," Kahne said of how he's fared thus far in the first three Chase races. "We were third the first race, fifth the second race, and last week we were running in the top five and were even maybe going to win the race. So we've brought great race cars to the track, the team has prepared and done an awesome job, our pit stops have been great. There's just a lot of really good things going on.
"Last week we had a heartbreak with 50 laps to go, and that stuff happens (finished 15th, three laps off the lead lap). We'll fix it, and it won't happen again. But that's part of it.
"We gave away some points, but I feel like we've been really consistent, maybe not the best car in the Chase, but one of the top three or four cars for sure."
As difficult of a track as the 2.66-mile racing surface at Talladega is, and further compounded by the use of restrictor plates on the motors, Kahne has enjoyed a modicum of success there, including four top-10 finishes heading into Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500.
What better place for a breakout finish than there, especially with the invariable pack racing that takes place, right?
"I think you definitely need to think about it and try to figure out what you feel is best for yourself, for the team and just trying to get all the points that we can on Sunday," Kahne said in a national teleconference Tuesday afternoon. "What I've done the past two, three years is just tried to race and stay out front, as close to the front as possible, and that's worked pretty good for us.
"It's hard to sit in the back and just kind of sit back there, relax and wait until 10 laps to go. I've done that before, you wait until 10 to go and you get up there and crash as soon as you get in the middle of it. It is tough. You never really know what to do, but I think whatever you do, you just need to stick to it the whole race, and when it's time to go at the end, hopefully you can stay out of trouble and have a shot at winning."
Because it's so important to have a drafting partner at Talladega, Kahne hopes to hook up with fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who is seeking his fifth career Cup championship and his first since 2001.
"Going into it, myself and Jeff Gordon, we'll work together if we can," Kahne said. "That's kind of how it works. We're in the same shop. The 88 and the 48 will do the same thing. But there's restarts, there's positions you get yourself in where you can't get to your teammate, and then it's who's in front of me or who's behind me, and those are your new drafting partners.
"So you just really want to help each other, but at times you can't, and you have to just look out for yourself."
Talladega has become the great equalizer in so many Chase races already through the first eight editions. It was there in 2006 that Johnson left after the race more than 150 points out of the standings lead, yet managed to rally in the remaining six races to capture what would become his first of a record-setting five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.
So, while Kahne doesn't wish any ill will upon any of his fellow Chasers, particularly those ahead of him in the points, he also knows that if situations arise that may benefit him and detract from his challengers, he must take full advantage of them at Talladega.
"I don't root for anyone to wreck or any of that stuff, but it's definitely a track that has the most possibilities of getting in the wrong spot at the wrong time and having no control of the situation," Kahne said. "So yeah, it could take out all 12 of us in the Chase or maybe just two of them or however it works. But Talladega is that one wild card that nobody really knows, and we won't have a clue until after it's all over."
Talladega has been a track that either brings about good fortune or misfortune, more often than not the latter rather than the former, a fact not lost upon Kahne, especially since he admittedly struggled earlier in this season getting used to his new team and organization.
But coming into the 30th race of the season, Kahne says he and his team have learned from early adversity and are ready to go forward and do well, even at such an unpredictable place as Talladega.
"We feel like our team has done a really nice job of that all season long, of coming back and getting behind and charging back as well as we could," he said. "So we still have a lot left in the Chase.
"It's a bad race, but if I can win at one of those races, we're back in it and we're all tied up. We definitely have a shot, we're definitely not out of it, but we can't give up any more points at this stage of it. We just need to run well and run up front from here on out."
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