Kahne among those getting desperate

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The winner of the last race at Michigan is 11th in the Nextel Cup standings.

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- A lot has changed for Kasey Kahne since he won at Michigan International Speedway in June.

That victory eight races ago was the 26-year-old NASCAR star's fourth of the season and left him in third place in the season standings, seemingly a shoe-in to run out the string and make it into the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.

Now, heading into today's GFS Marketplace 400 at the same Michigan track, Kahne is wondering what happened.

Since his last win, the youngster has had only one finish better than 22nd -- an eighth-place run at New Hampshire -- and finds himself outside the top 10, which also means outside the Chase.

With only four races to go until the 10-race NASCAR playoffs begin, Kahne's No. 9 Evernham Motorsports Dodge team needs a turnaround -- fast.

"I left here third in the points and I wouldn't have expected we'd be 11th going into this weekend," said Kahne, who trails 10th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 54 points. "It's a humbling sport, and it's all about the ups and downs. That's what makes it so good."

Kahne said the confidence he and his team had following his last visit to the track was "as high as it's been all season long.

"Wherever we went after [that], we went into that race thinking we were going to win or run up front," he added. "We've just had some struggles since then."

Kahne isn't the only driver facing some stress in these next four races.

Only 122 points separate seventh-place Tony Stewart, the two-time and defending series champion, from Kahne -- with rookie Denny Hamlin, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt in between.

And there's more.

Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, and last year's second- and third-place finishers, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, still are long shots to make the Chase. Edwards, who finished second here in June, is behind the other two in 14th place, a daunting 191 points out of 10th.

"You never know," said Edwards, in his second full season in Cup. "We could win these next four races and be solidly in the Chase. Anything can happen and we're not giving up."

Matt Kenseth knows it can happen.

Heading into this race a year ago, Kenseth was 16th, 165 points out of 10th. But Kenseth charged into the Chase in the final four regular-season races.

The 2003 series champion, who goes into today's race second in the points to Jimmie Johnson and is virtually assured of making the Chase, has some advice for the drivers hoping to get in or stay in.

"You just can't do anything different," he said. "You can only try as hard as you can. There have been times in my career during races where I tried harder than that and the end result is never good.

"You're already doing everything you can and, if your car isn't that good that day and you're running eighth and if that's all you can do, then that's all you can do. If you try to do more, that's when you have the big mistake ... because you went over the edge."

Earnhardt, who failed to make the Chase last year, to the great disappointment of his legion of fans, is quietly confident, despite his tenuous hold on 10th.

"I ran third last time we were here and I was pretty good with that," Earnhardt said.

"We're racing one guy right now, and that's Kasey Kahne," he added. "If we can get in front of a couple guys in front of us, we'll be good. And we've definitely got the opportunity to do that if we don't have any major catastrophes."

Kahne, too, appears reasonably confident, considering how things have been going.

"There's no room for error right now," Kahne said. "We just need to do our thing and not make any mistakes and just be smart about everything we do. If we run well at the upcoming four tracks, as we did earlier in the year, we're not going to need anybody to screw up.

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