The latest addition to Hendrick Motorsports' dream team inched five steps closer to a Chase berth with a savvy win on Sunday. Kasey Kahne, now sporting two wins on the season, has certifiably completed a total turnaround on his 2012 season.
After a disastrous start over the first handful of races, Kahne now has nine top-10's in the past 13 races, with two wins to boot. Is the man a lock for the Chase?
That’s the issue at stake in this episode of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke will agree; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.
Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic or black flag if he's dead set against the idea.
Sam: The simple answer is that it's still too hard to tell, for a couple of straightforward reasons.
First, Kahne isn't in the top 10 in points yet, and it remains a probability that come the final "regular season" race in Richmond, he still won't be, even with solid performances until then. With almost a full race's worth of points separating tenth-place Brad Keselowski and 11th-place Carl Edwards, it's doubtful that any of the drivers currently in the wild card hunt will have the top-10 option available any time soon.
Second, there's no certainty in the Wild Card picture for those just outside of the top 10 in points right now. In short, it's most likely the busiest beehive of Chase contention on record. A languishing Edwards holds 11th, but he's still Edwards, last year's championship runner-up. Kahne holds 12th. Talented Kyle Busch sits uneasily in 13th with a win to his credit, with fellow one-win Ryan Newman directly behind. Joey Logano, with a win on the year, and Jeff Gordon, still winless, but looking hungry as well.
Beyond that stiff competition is the fact that there's actually a good deal of winning going on by the drivers just outside of the top 10 in points. Or at least, win potential. Two wins now seems to be the minimum tally to make a wild card slot, a true sign of the competitive times. If it wasn't for Keselowski's recent jump into the tenth points position, his three wins would be almost be a benchmark for a wild card berth.
Beyond all of that, it remains true that Kahne now stands as the current man to beat in the wild card race, with his two wins currently trumping all other hopefuls among his Wild Card brethren. All of his closest challengers have a single win, with a few with no wins at all. In that light, the prognostication grows rosier for Kahne.
Is he a lock for the 2012 Chase? Not quite. But he gets a green flag of likely inclusion, and he's a white flag away from seeing the checkers on a 2012 Chase seed.
Luke: For the purposes of this debate, I'm going to assume that the only way Kasey Kahne can make the Chase is via the Wild Card. Perhaps Carl Edwards has an outside shot at reaching the top 10 in points, at 46 points behind 10th place. But Kahne is an additional 20 points behind the No. 99, and there's almost no way he can make up 10 points per race over the next seven races.
That leaves the Wild Card as Kahne's only potential ride to NASCAR's playoff party, and as the standings lie at the moment, Ol' Blue Eyes is obviously in the best position of all Wild Card hopefuls to punch his ticket to that destination. He is the only competitor outside the top 10 with multiple wins thus far, and even better, he sits higher in the standings than Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano, the other three drivers with wins in 2012.
In order to miss out on a Wild Card slot, two of those drivers would have to win again in the next seven races, in addition to jumping past Kahne in the points. Odds of that happening? Very slim. Edwards or another winless driver such as Jeff Gordon could also win twice to beat out Kahne, but the odds of that are even slimmer.
Oh yeah, and that assumes that Kahne doesn't win again, something he's done twice in the last eight races. With the way the Hendrick newcomer has been running for the last few months, I'm not betting against more wins from the No. 5 team. It goes without saying that if Kahne can get win No. 3 on the season, it’s nearly a mathematical impossibility for him to miss the Chase.
Suffice it to say: The green flag is lustily waving on the Chase chances of Mr. Kahne, with the checkered flag of rock-solid certainty fast approaching.
Final analysis: With unanimous consent, Kasey Kahne's postseason outlook receives a solid green flag. Happy Chasing!