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At restart, Kahne’s pursuit is clear

Chase begins with focus and ambition

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / September 17, 2009

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It’s a good thing Kasey Kahne isn’t claustrophobic, because his job doesn’t allow for it. Constantly surrounded by autograph-hungry fans around the garage area, boxed in by reporters and television cameras behind his hauler, or strapped into his No. 9 Dodge, it seems Kahne never has much wiggle room whenever the NASCAR crowd comes rolling into town.

Part of the attention might be due to Kahne’s youthful good looks (he’s 29, always clean-shaven, and single), but it’s also because he’s been driving in NASCAR’s top series for six seasons now, racking up wins, money, and points. There’s been some heartache, controversy, and disappointment, but he’s one of the lucky 12 this year who qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, a 10-race playoff that will determine NASCAR’s season champion. The Chase begins Sunday in Loudon, N.H., with the Sylvania 300.

Kahne opens the Chase fifth in the standings, although it took a victory two weeks ago in Atlanta to secure a spot. He’s actually missed the Chase more times than he’s made it, finishing out those seasons in search of wins and momentum, but knowing that no matter how well he did, a championship would have to wait. So when Kahne arrived in Atlanta 11th in the standings, he knew there was more work to be done. So, too, in Richmond last week, even though he had jumped to sixth in the standings. Safer, but not definitely in.

Again, Kahne responded, avoiding any major issues and finishing a very conservative 12th. Mission accomplished.

“I’ve had to tune things out and it’s not just me, it’s our entire team,’’ Kahne said. “When the pressure is on, they’re really good, and when it’s time to tune things out, whatever it may be since I’ve been here, they’ve been able to do that.’’

Kahne and his crew must tune more things out after last week’s announcement that Richard Petty Motorsports, which owns the No. 9 team, would be merging with Yates Racing and driving Fords next year, not the Dodge Charger Kahne has used since 2005. Kahne’s team must now deal with job security issues, and Kahne will soon be back with a manufacturer that he fought to leave in 2003, when he was under contract to Ford, but given an opportunity to replace Bill Elliott in a Dodge.

A federal judge ultimately dismissed Ford’s breach-of-contract lawsuit against the driver. But the irony of what’s coming next season wasn’t lost on Kahne.

“Obviously I left Ford . . . we went through that whole lawsuit. I wasn’t a big fan and they weren’t a big fan of me,’’ Kahne said. “Time heals and I think some of those [Ford] people are gone that caused all that. Ford is really excited, and I can work through things.’’

But might the impending move affect this year’s Chase?

“It’s not going to hurt us in the context of support. The people that we have . . . still want to win races. I want to win races, and we want to run as well in the Chase as we can,’’ Kahne said. “Hopefully it doesn’t affect us. It could. Hopefully it doesn’t.’’

It’s been three years since Kahne took part in his only other Chase, finishing eighth in 2006. He narrowly missed the field while winning rookie of the year honors in 2004, and was edged out last year, too, by 69 points.

While there are always exceptions (four victories weren’t enough for Kyle Busch this year), winning races goes a long way toward reaching NASCAR’s playoffs. Six of Kahne’s 11 Sprint Cup wins came in 2006, and he’s won twice this year - at Sonoma, Calif., in July, and Atlanta. Team continuity also plays a role in postseason qualification. Kenny Francis has been Kahne’s crew chief for three seasons.

“It’s a relief for everyone to make it. It’s big for the whole organization,’’ Francis said. “We’re looking forward to putting together some good runs the next 10 races and give them all we got.’’

Said Kahne: “This team, we’ve been around for a while. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve run so well. When we get our cars right, the whole package right, we’re one of the better teams out here.’’

Ultimately, consistency wins championships, at least in NASCAR. Jimmie Johnson has won the past three championships, and in those 30 races during the Chase, he’s finished outside the top 15 only twice. Kahne has six finishes worse than 20th this season, just one since June 21.

“We’ve been up and down, bouncing around. Got off to a bad start at Daytona [29th], then just kept plugging away, plugging away,’’ team owner Richard Petty said. “Maybe we got off to a slow start, but hopefully all the stuff that we’ve done, all the stuff we’ve learned being a crew and being a team, sort of jells at the end of the season. Anybody that runs the last part of the season good has a chance to win a championship. This is a good start to the last part of the season. That’s the way we’re looking at it.’’

With the points reset Sunday, the positive trends and negative inconsistencies from everybody’s first 26 races get wiped clean, with all 12 drivers now separated by only 40 points. Before he says goodbye to a trusted friend, Kahne would like nothing more than to close this chapter in his racing career with a flourish, starting at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“It’s a great track for us. I had a top-four car there in the spring and then the rain came and we ran 10th. If it hadn’t rained, we’d have run top four, maybe even had a chance to win the race,’’ Kahne said. “We were pretty strong there.

“Like I’ve said, we still have some more wins to go with Dodge. Dodge has been great to me since 2004, and I feel like we can still win some more races with them before this year is over.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com