Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Kahne hopes Daytona race sparks lucky streak

TAMPA — After Kasey Kahne's past two restrictor-plate races ended in disappointment and dustups with Kyle Busch, Kahne floated a new idea heading into Saturday's Coke Zero 400.

"I'm just going to pull over when (Busch is) around me," Kahne said, joking.

Considering his luck with Busch in their last stop at Daytona International Speedway, Kahne's idea might be a good one.

Kahne was running near the front of the pack 33 laps into the Sprint Cup season-opening Daytona 500 when a car in front of him forced him to slow. Busch kept going, nosing Kahne's No. 5 Chevrolet through the grass and turning Kahne's potential top-five run into a 36th-place finish.

The wreck could have been forgiven as one mistake in a long season, except the drama continued.

At Talladega in May, Busch nudged Kahne during a battle for second in the Aaron's 499, triggering a 16-car wreck and sending Kahne to the garage in 42nd. The next week, the two were dueling for the lead with 33 laps left in the Southern 500 at Darlington when Busch squeezed Kahne high into the wall. The contact did enough damage to Kahne's Chevy that he dropped to 17th.

But Kahne said his brushes with Busch are behind him.

"When I'm racing now, I don't feel like it's a big deal," Kahne said recently during a stop at Bucs practice. "I race (Busch) just like I always have, and he races me just like he always has. There were just three mistakes earlier in the year."

But they were costly for Kahne, who is having a solid but unspectacular season in his second year with Hendrick Motorsports. Those wrecks gave Kahne two of his worst finishes of the season and have helped put one of the sport's top talents in danger of missing the Chase for the Championship for the sixth time in 10 seasons.

He arrives at Daytona for Saturday's race 11th in the point standings, one behind Joey Logano for the final guaranteed Chase spot. But his lone victory, at the Food City 500 at Bristol in March, has him in line for one of the two wild card berths with nine races until the Chase.

Kahne is in better shape than last year, when he entered this race 14th in the standings and 74 points out of 10th place. He rallied to finish a career-best fourth in the championship.

"I feel like we're kind of getting on the verge there of really needing to get a ton of points to get back to where we need to be," Kahne said. "I don't feel any better now than I did last year at this time."

The 33-year-old Washington state native is in a familiar situation despite having fast cars for most of the season and competing on a team with championship favorite Jimmie Johnson and resurgent Dale Earnhardt Jr., who sits sixth in points.

Kahne rose to second in the standings after a runnerup finish in the STP 400 at Kansas in late April, his sixth top-11 run in the first eight races. Since then, he has been hurt by inconsistency and bad luck.

His car has been strong — only two Cup regulars have a better average starting position (ninth) — and only Busch, Johnson and Matt Kenseth have led more laps than Kahne's 400. But he has been outside the top 15 in eight of 17 races.

Last month in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan, Kahne was leading by more than three seconds halfway through when he blew a tire, slammed into the wall and had to scurry from his burning car.

"I think we've been as good as anyone all season long," he said. "We just don't have the results to show."

Kahne said he hopes his luck changes with this weekend's return to Daytona, where he has finished in the top nine in five of his past six July races. Teams have had two superspeedway races to figure out the new Gen-6 cars, and the race at Talladega included 30 lead changes.

"If Daytona's like that when we go back," Kahne said, "I'm really looking forward to it."

Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

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