Kasey Kahne has winning momentum heading into Dover
It was a few days before Christmas 2004, and 24-year-old Kasey Kahne and his younger brother, Kale, were racing on four-wheelers down a muddy back road in the foothills of Washington's Mount Rainer. As Kasey slid around a bend in the rocky road, he controlled his all-terrain vehicle like it was a fifth appendage, straddling that oh-so fine line between flipping over while maintaining maximum speed.
He passed his brother as the two roared toward an imaginary finish line near the 1,000-foot crown of Mount Peak, the base of which sat 500 yards from the Kahne's family home, Enumclaw, Wash. Kahne's father, Kelly, stood nearby and watched his boys closely -- just as he'd done all of Kasey's life. "This is where Kasey first learned how to be a racer," Kelly told me back then. "Up on this mountain and down at our house, he learned how to maintain control of his vehicle even when he was sliding."
More than eight years later, Kahne's sense of car control is as finely tuned as anyone's in NASCAR. Fifth in the standings, Kahne led the most laps last Sunday night at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 (161) and finished second behind Kevin Harvick.
But what's been most telling about Kahne in 2013 is his performance on intermediate-length tracks. In five starts on tracks that are either 1.5 or 2-miles in length, Kahne's average finish is 5.2 -- the best in the Cup series. Considering that five of the 10-playoff races take place on intermediate tracks, this should bode well for Kahne's title chances this fall. "I feel really confident with my team," said Kahne after the 600 on Sunday night. "They were just on it the entire time."
On Sunday the Cup series heads to Dover for the 13th race of the season. My pick to win is Kahne, who will be driving the same chassis that he piloted to Victory Lane earlier this season at Bristol. Though he's yet to win at the Monster Mile in 18 career starts, he's never arrived at Dover with so much momentum, which is a very real force in motor sports. He finished ninth in this event last year and it says here he'll wind up eight spots better than that Sunday.
Here are four other drivers to watch at Dover:
Based on statistics alone, Johnson must be considered the overwhelming favorite to take the checkered flag Sunday. He is the reigning winner of this race and he also leads the series in all-time wins at Dover with seven, a record he shares with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison.
The points leader through a dozen races, Johnson, not surprisingly, possesses the best driver rating thus far in 2013 (120.6), the most fastest laps run (878), the most laps run among the top 15 drivers (5,570 laps, which translates to 87 percent), and best average green flag speed (143.988 mph).
With such a sizeable points lead over Carl Edwards (32), Johnson can afford to take risks on the track and on pit road and aggressively race for victories and the three bonus points each win carries into the Chase. Dover is one of Johnson's best tracks on the circuit, and look for him to stay in the top-five all afternoon at the Monster Mile.
Even though we're only at the midway point of the regular season, it's rapidly approaching now-or-never time for Stewart. Last Sunday night at Charlotte he had his best finish of the season -- seventh -- and he's now 20th in the standings, which is as low as he's ever been at this stage of the season in his 15-year Cup career.
But as my colleague Cary Estes pointed out, Stewart traditionally heats up in the summer. A racer who grew up sliding around on dirt tracks in the Midwest, Stewart loves sun-backed, slippery tracks. To wit: 41 of Stewart's 47 career Sprint Cup victories have occurred after May 31.
Stewart has struggled at Dover in recent years. In his last five starts at the Monster Mile, he hasn't finished higher than 20th. But listening to his comments after his run at Charlotte, I came away thinking he seems to genuinely believe his team is on the cusp of a breakthrough. Clearly, all the Stewart-Haas cars -- Stewart's, Ryan Newman's and Danica Patrick's -- have struggled this season with issues of balance and grip. Have the engineers at SHR finally made significant strides in those areas? We'll find out on Sunday.
Kevin Harvick's season began with so much promise. He won the exhibition Sprint Unlimited at Daytona and was widely considered a favorite to take the checkers in the season opening 500, but then, only 47 laps into the Great American Race, he was in involved in a crash and finished 42nd out of 43 drivers. Harvick had already announced he was leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of 2013 to join Stewart-Haas Racing in '14, and so the whispers immediately started in the garage that Harvick's lame-duck status would doom his final season at RCR.
Well, that hasn't happened. Since the crash at Daytona, Harvick has steadily climbed the standings and has won two races, including the 600 last Sunday. He's now seventh in points and appears to be a solid bet to qualify for the Chase for the fifth straight year.
In 24 career starts at Dover, Harvick's has never won and his average finish is only 15.9. But Harvick did come in second in this race last year and he's known to be a streaky driver.
Kenseth is on one of the most impressive rolls of his career right now -- it's just not showing up in all of his finishes.
Kenseth has led the most laps in three of the last five races. But you could argue that he had the best car in the field in each of those events. What does he have to show for it? He has two wins over that stretch, two other top-10s, and a 15th place finish at Charlotte. He's currently third in the standings.
The little reason to expect that Kenseth's recent surge will stop at Dover. In his last four starts at on the high-banked concrete oval, Kenseth has one win and three-top fives. Pencil him in for a top-three run Sunday.