LONG POND, Pa. ó Winning races used to be almost expected for Kasey Kahne.
No driver won more of them in 2006 (six) than the babyfaced star when he raced his way into the Chase.
Then the victories dried up, and so did any hope of title contention. After more than a year when nothing seemed to go right for the popular Kahne, consecutive trips to Victory Lane could give him the momentum needed to make a push up the standings.
“We needed a little boost. We got that,” Kahne said Wednesday at Pocono Raceway. “I think everybody feels like we have a pretty strong company and pretty strong race cars, and we can keep building on that.”
Kahne won the All-Star race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, then followed a week later on the same track with a victory in the Coca-Cola 600. The Sprint Cup victory snapped a 52-race winless streak in points events that stretched back to October 2006 ó back when Kahne imagined more wins would come more often than this.
He’s the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same year.
Kahne returned to the top 12 in the points standings and is only 32 points outside 10th. Kahne hopes his spot in the Chase is a permanent one and he can stick there long enough to run for the title over the final 10 races of the season.
“We have the team to do it, that’s for sure,” he said.
Kahne started the season strong with three straight top-10 finishes before recording only two more over the next eight races. He would look at the other drivers and their cars and wonder why the No. 9 Dodge couldn’t keep up.
“I didn’t necessarily lose confidence in myself or my team,” Kahne said. “But there were times I wondered, as a company, if we were doing some of the wrong things. … Everybody’s stuff is different. I just felt like maybe we were behind there.”
One thing Kahne never lost was his popularity. Even as he slumped in a winless 2007 and a 19th-place finish, Kahne’s fanbase remained stout. Kahne never would have qualified for the All-Star race without them.
He didn’t qualify for the race because of his lengthy winless streak, never won the All-Star race before and couldn’t snag a spot among the nonqualifiers in the Sprint Showdown. His only other way was by fan vote.
Unlike baseball, where All-Star starters might only dig in for an at-bat or two for the fans who punched those ballots, Kahne rewarded his supporters’ faith. He gambled on the final pit stop to win the $1 million prize.
The victory was the spark he needed to help him the next week. Well, that and Tony Stewart’s flat tire.
Stewart was leading the race until a flat with three laps left knocked him into the pits. Kahne was in prime position to take advantage and moved into Chase contention with the victory.
“I think we’re finally getting there to where we can contend at a lot of these racetracks, be in the top 10 and have a shot,” he said.
Stewart, who didn’t talk to the media after the race, said this week on his Sirius Satellite Radio program that he still doesn’t know how his tire went flat.
“I felt it start going down as soon as I almost finished the exit of turn four, and I knew something wasn’t right going down the front straightaway,” he said. “When I got to (turn) one and I turned the wheel and it got soft and started going up the hill I thought, ‘Oh, boy, this cannot be happening.”‘
But it did. And that was the break Kahne needed to earn his first top-five finish this season.
He believes crew Kenny Francis and the rest of Gillett Evernham Motorsports now have the car figured out. After all, they’ve all won big before, and Kahne knows this hot streak might be enough to get them all going.
“I feel like our cars are better than what I thought they were three, four weeks ago,” Kahne said. “It’s been fun to drive again the last three weeks.”
NOTES: Dario Franchitti will not drive the No. 40 Dodge in the Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Dover. Jeremy Mayfield will fill in at the 400-miles race. Franchitti tested at Pocono for the first time since he broke his ankle last month at Talladega. He will drive in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race. The former Indy 500 champ expects to return to Cup action in 10 days at Pocono. “It would be just a little much for a first day back, going to Dover and I’ve never been there before,” Franchitti said Wednesday. “This is ideal because we get two days running, then we get to come back here and get back in the rhythm of things.”