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WHEN IT comes to winning the Sprint Cup championship, road-course races are, well, mere bumps in the road. With the circuit making only two stops (none in the 10-race Chase playoff) at such tracks—which, unlike ovals, feature left and right turns plus elevation changes—a driver can be indifferent at the road events in Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y. (see: Johnson, Jimmie), and still win the season title.
Which is why Kasey Kahne needn't fret about his showing last weekend in California wine country. Though he won the pole for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, his car handled poorly on Sunday and he finished 33rd in a race won by Kyle Busch. Doesn't matter—he's still the biggest surprise of the 2008 season.
After failing to win a race and finishing 19th in the point standings last year, the 28-year-old Kahne already has two victories in '08; even better, with three top five finishes over the last five races, the top driver in the Gillett Evernham Motorsports stable has climbed from 14th to ninth in points. While every other Dodge team has floundered—the second-highest Dodge driver in the standings is Ryan Newman of Penske Racing, at 16th—Kahne has emerged as a title contender.
"We're as good as anybody right now," says Kahne, who before last year's slump was the Cup Rookie of the Year in 2004 and led the circuit in victories (six) in '06. "We don't have the manpower that Hendrick [Motorsports] or Gibbs [ Joe Gibbs Racing] have, but we're just as competitive. We've definitely caught up to them."
Kahne's turnaround can be traced to August 2007, when George N. Gillett Jr., who owns the NHL's Montreal Canadiens, became majority owner of Ray Evernham's race team. Not only did Gillett infuse the organization with cash, vastly expanding the team's resources, but the partnership also allowed Evernham to become more involved in the competition side of his operation. No longer preoccupied with duties such as searching for sponsors, Evernham, who won three Cup titles in the 1990s as Jeff Gordon's crew chief, has worked more closely with all of his crew chiefs to try to find speed in their fleet of Dodges. He also sits on Kahne's pit box and advises Kahne's crew chief, Kenny Francis, on mid-race adjustments and strategic calls.
Kahne started moving up in the standings shortly after his team tweaked the setup of his car during a test session at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte in early May. No one at Gillett Evernham will reveal precisely what they discovered, but director of competition Mark McArdle allows that mechanical adjustments were made that involved parts reconfigured by Evernham himself. "The car is a lot easier to drive than it was before the Charlotte test," says Kahne. "When I have something that fits my driving style, we can be really successful.... I've matured as a driver and we're maturing as a team."
In his fifth year on the Cup circuit, Kahne, who has nine career wins, is becoming known as one of the best closers in NASCAR. When he's among the top three near the end of a race, he usually takes the checkers—something Gordon was famous for in his championship days.