Bad luck behind him, Kasey Kahne ready for success in Charlotte
Kasey Kahne, making his 300th Cup start, trying to 'put it all together' in Charlotte
Jimmie Johnson is a threat due to his past success at Charlotte Motor Speedway
After running out of fuel last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a chance to win this year
CHARLOTTE -- While his fans worried, Kasey Kahne wasn't despondent about his troubles earlier this season even as he yo-yoed between 26th and 33rd in the points in his inaugural campaign with Hendrick Motorsports.
It would have been easy to be overcome with frustration. Jimmie Johnson, worried about Kahne, spoke to him at one point during the rough stretch after seeing his teammate "bummed out'' by results mired by accidents and mechanical issues.
"Nobody wants to start a new relationship with the type of luck that he had with that stretch of bad runs,'' Johnson said. "I kept reinforcing the good things that were happening with the team and the speed that he had. He was winning poles. The luck would come.''
It seemed that if Kahne could avoid trouble, he would finish among the leaders. He won two poles early and his cars were fast, but he just couldn't make it to the finish on the lead lap often.
Now, those troubles are gone -- seemingly transferred to teammate Jeff Gordon -- and Kahne heads into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 as one of the hottest drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Since an engine issue gave him a 38th-place finish at Martinsville on April 1, Kahne has not finished out of the top 10. That's five races in a row (six if you count last weekend's non-points All-Star race). He's climbed to 16th in the points.
"I feel like we are running pretty well since the start of the season, we really haven't made those big gains yet," said Kahne, who will make his 300th career Cup start Sunday. "I think as a company it's obvious that we have the speed and it's all right there. We just need to put it together. I felt good about kind of where we have been all season long and just trying to put it all together.
"I just want to run better.''
He won't be the only driver to watch during Sunday's race, though. Here are four others to keep an eye on during the 600:
1. Matt Kenseth
He won last October's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and led a quarter of last year's Coca-Cola 600 before finishing 14th. The Daytona 500 champ has finished sixth or better in five of the last six points races. And no, he doesn't subscribe to the theory that a team can peak too soon in such a long season.
"I think it's easier to keep everybody motivated and happy ... it's way easier to do that when you're winning and running good and being up front and up there in the points,'' said Kenseth, second in the points. "The times it's hard is when you're not running good and you go home and it's like, 'Man, we did all this work and got this for a result.'"
He was strong in the All-Star race, winning a segment before finishing third. No reason to think he won't be a factor Sunday night.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Many still refer to Charlotte Motor Speedway as "Jimmie's house'' for the success he once had -- winning five times in six races from 2003-05. Since, he's had more finishes of 30th or worse (three) than wins (one).
Still, it's hard to discount him this weekend not only because of his past success at the track, but also because of how strong he's been this season. Discount the two restrictor-plate races (Johnson was wrecked on lap 2 in the Daytona 500 and had an engine failure at Talladega) and he's placed no worse than 12th in a race. He enters this weekend having won the Southern 500, the most recent points race.
Johnson seems poised to reclaim his house.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He excited Junior Nation by winning the Sprint Showdown last week to advance to the All-Star race, where won a segment and finished fifth. His team has brought the same car back this weekend.
His fans are also excited because he nearly won this race a year ago. Earnhardt seemed headed for his first Cup victory since 2008 before losing the lead on the last corner of the last lap when he ran out of fuel.
"It was tough to come so close last year and not win the race,'' Earnhardt said. "My initial reaction was that I was happy that we actually rolled across the finish line in seventh. I was really relieved that it wasn't worse than that. And then after a while you start thinking about ,'Oh yeah, we really came close to winning a race.' It was really unfortunate there wasn't just a little bit more gas in the car."
4. Kyle Busch
Never count him out at Charlotte. He's finished eighth or better in eight of the last nine Charlotte races with two runner-up results.
Also consider what he's done in the last month: He won at Richmond, finished second at Talladega, placed fourth at Darlington and was fourth in the All-Star race. This is the Kyle many fans have come to expect.