The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has been marked by some key injuries, notable penalties and general inconsistency from name drivers. But amidst it all, Kasey Kahne has quietly lurked in the standings. After last week’s victory, Kahne isn’t lurking very quietly anymore.
Kahne is in eighth place in the points standings and his playoff position is still far from secure, but with his second victory he’s positioned himself to be on the second rung of drivers when the postseason starts in mid-September (read here for a layman’s guide to NASCAR playoff qualification and positioning). The growing threat that Kahne represents to the leaders fits the pattern his career has followed.
The 30-year-old Kahne got an early start on the circuit, racing full time nine years ago, and in his third season he won six races. But there were as many downs as ups in his development. “He’d have a good year, then a bad year,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series consultant, my brother Bill. “Now he’s starting to even out.”
That evening out began last season when Kahne peaked down the stretch, made the playoffs and ended up finishing fourth. It was a career-best showing and the third Top 10 finish of his career. Bill attributes a big part of Kahne’s newfound consistency not just to experience, but to his becoming a part of the well-respected Hendrick Motor Sports team. It could be that the best is yet to come for Kasey Kahne.
When word came on Monday that Tony Stewart had broken his leg while driving in a low-level race, it completely reshaped the landscape for the two wild-card spots in the playoffs. Stewart is in 11th place and has both the points, and the wins to be in firm command of one spot. But with him on the sidelines there is basically no chance he can hold on to Top 20 position and even remain eligible for wild-card qualification. Thus, a berth opens up.
The beneficiary of Stewart’s misfortune, at least for the present, is Ryan Newman. Presuming Stewart will fall by the wayside—something Bill assures me is an absolute certainty unless the driver finds some miracle cure that puts him back on the track—that leaves Martin Truex and Newman is next in line.
Where it gets interesting is that Newman and Truex both trail Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch in the points standings. But in the wild-card race, its wins that count before points, so long as a driver is in the Top 20. Thus we have a situation where Keselowski remains desperate to win a race and change the equation, while the current wild-card leaders hope another win can seal their postseason spot.
THE ROAD COURSE
Watkins Glen is a road course track, meaning it’s set up to require drivers to do full right and left turns, as though they were driving a regular road. The uniqueness of this style means different drivers than the usual suspects end up winning, and that’s been shown at this venue. Marcus Ambrose won here in 2011 and 2012 and he’s a 4-1 betting line favorite to three-peat in 2013.
Juan Montoya has also enjoyed success on this type of track and he ran well at the road course in Sonoma, though it was Truex who ultimately won that race. Of the “name” drivers that have won at Watkins Glen, there’s only one in recent years…and ironically it’s Tony Stewart (2007 & 2009). All of which makes Sunday’s Cheez-It-355 (1 PM ET, ESPN) likely to produce another shakeup.