Back-to-the-wall performance becoming a trademark.
Kasey Kahne continues to be at his best with his back to the wall this season.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver, whose dramatic victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway propelled him into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, rallied from multiple laps down to finish 20th in Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway – just good enough to edge AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch for the final transfer spot from the Challenger Round to the 12-driver Contender Round of the Chase.
Kahne’s performance enabled team owner Rick Hendrick to advance all four of his cars to the next round. Kahne joins Sunday’s race winner Jeff Gordon, six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
”Kasey escaped a bullet,” said Hendrick, who believes that Kahne’s No. 5 Chevrolet has the kind of speed to create havoc for other contenders as the Chase moves forward. He’s just glad his driver will get that chance after a loose wheel nearly doomed his effort.
“His car was so good,” Hendrick said. “(But) I had really had written it off about two-thirds through the race. I didn’t think we were going to get a break. When he had to pit under green, I just thought we were done, because I didn’t think we could make up two laps.”
At first, Kahne didn’t want to admit the vibration he was beginning to feel. He said he went at least five laps before reporting it to crew chief Kenny Francis.
Kahne’s problem forced him to pit early on Lap 161. Off pit sequence, he fell two laps behind race leader Kevin Harvick on Lap 214 and would have found himself four laps off the pace after pitting on Lap 243 had NASCAR not permitted the race to remain green when Harvick suffered his own tire issue.
“I’m glad NASCAR let us race for it today, because that’s the only way I made it in,” said Kahne, who had been running in the top 10.
A lap down, but good enough
Kahne got one of his laps back thanks to a wave-around. Although he finished a lap down to Gordon, his track position was good enough to keep Allmendinger and Busch at bay in the closing laps.
“We had a better car than some of the other guys and were able to race our way in,” he said. “I bet this team is a top three or four car. I mean we had a top-five car (this week) and we’re running 20-something. We just need to work on (our shortcomings) when we’re on pit road.”
As the race neared conclusion, Kahne knew his position in the Chase field remained precarious.
“I never really got nervous at all,” he said. “I just raced hard the whole time. Then Kenny (Francis) started telling me, ‘We’re tied for 12th’ with like 30 (laps) to go. Then, ‘we’re one point in….We might be two points in.’ That’s when I started getting worried. It was intense inside the car."
Although there were five cautions for 23 laps, the race was devoid of accidents that claimed any of the contenders. That left the issue up to the drivers and their crews.
Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin were among those drivers who seized that opportunity to advance to the Contender Round of the Chase.
“Those long green-flag runs – we needed that,” said Hamlin, who entered Sunday 13th in the standings but ran in the top 10 most of the day and advanced with his 11th-place finish. “We qualified well, practiced well, and that gave us the starting spot (third) that gave us the advantage for the first three-quarters of the race. Without that track position, early, who knows where we would have ended up?”
Edwards entered the race ninth in the standings but found himself on the bubble, running 21st in the race and 12th in the standings after Sunday’s second caution.
“That was tough,” said Edwards, who was able to make steady progress from that point. “The car was actually pretty decent. We had a top-10 car and finished 11th, but I think if I would have done a little better job on restarts, we would have been better.”
Newman comes through
Although he qualified 20th, Newman was a top-10 car throughout the second half of the race and the Richard Childress Racing driver, who began the race 12th in points, was never in serious jeopardy.
“We didn’t win the race -- not the end result that we wanted -- but a good team effort to get us into the next bracket of the Chase,” Newman said. “We get to keep fighting this war.”
One driver moving on to the next round but unsatisfied with his effort at Dover was Earnhardt Jr., who qualified 25th and finished 17th.
“We just missed it. That’s not good enough to win a championship,” Earnhardt said. “We’re concerned. It’s not been a good couple of weeks for us and we need to find something pretty quick.”
NASCAR Wire Service, Seth Livingstone