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Kasey Kahne is one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR today. He's got talent, matinee-idol looks and a marquee sponsor (Budweiser), he stars in commercials and, at every stop on the circuit, female fans line up by the dozens near the garage hoping for hugs. (He undoubtedly leads the series in most hugs given in 2009.) He would seem to have it all.
But he doesn't. Not yet, at least. Because for the past two seasons Kahne, 29, has failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Currently 13th in the standings and trailing Juan Pablo Montoya by one point for the 12th and final spot in the Chase (which comprises the season's final 10 races), Kahne understands the harsh reality in NASCAR that popularity rarely lasts if you continue to miss the Chase (well, unless your name is Dale Earnhardt Jr.). That knowledge informed Kahne's every move in his late-race duel with Tony Stewart on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., on June 21. The leader for the final 33 laps, Kahne held off Stewart on four restarts—balancing his hunger for victory against the potential for a season-ruining misstep—to win his first race of 2009. It was a gutsy performance, underscoring that for drivers like Kahne, who are on the threshold of the Chase, the stakes are high and the margin for error slight.
"There is so much pressure to make the Chase," says Kahne. "It's there every day. Sponsors don't say anything directly to me, but I feel pressure to make it for them. I feel pressure from my team. I feel pressure from my fans. I feel it from everyone. The bottom line is if you don't make the Chase, then you haven't gotten the job done."
Greg Biffle, who's currently ninth in points, and who missed out on the Chase in 2006 and '07, puts it more bluntly: "If you don't get in [the Chase], heck, you're just another guy—a guy who can be replaced."
With nine races left before the start of this year's playoff, three drivers—Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson—have pulled away from the pack. Together they've won nine of the last 14 Cup titles, and barring a historic collapse, they should cruise into the Chase. Call them the Front-Runners. Behind them another dozen or so drivers at most have a realistic shot at becoming Chasers. They can be divided into three more categories: the Middle Men, the Bubble Boys and the Long Shots. Here's a breakdown of each group and the strategies drivers will employ between now and when the green flag falls on the Chase on Sept. 20 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
• The Front-Runners
These three drivers can do something over the next two months that the Bubble Boys can't: take chances and go all out for wins. (Each victory in the regular season translates into a 10-point bonus at the start of the Chase, when the points are reset to level the playing field.) So, late in a race one driver might change just two tires instead of four during a pit stop (saving time in exchange for track position but possibly compromising the car's handling) or try to stretch fuel mileage, the way Stewart did on June 7 at Pocono (Penn.) Raceway to steal a victory.
"We have flexibility because of where we are in points," says Stewart, who leads Gordon in the standings by 69 points. "We'll even practice with different things on Fridays in race trim to see if we can find something that will help us in the Chase. We'll be constantly looking forward. We couldn't necessarily do that if we were lower in points."
Stewart, who only has one win this season, no doubt will contend for several more this summer. He grew up racing on slick dirt tracks around the Midwest, and now, not surprisingly, when the temperatures rise and tracks become more sun-baked and slippery, Stewart heats up. He has 12 career Cup wins in July and August—more than any other current driver.
Better yet, though, might be peaking in the fall, during the Chase, as Johnson has while winning the last three titles. "When we visit tracks over the summer that traditionally haven't been my strongest," says Johnson, "we spend a lot of time preparing for the Chase."