There were more than a few times during the 2102 NASCAR Sprint Cup season that fans had given up on Kasey Kahne and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet making it into the Chase for the Championship.
Some were questioning whether Rick Hendrick had made the right decision to jettison veteran Mark Martin in favour of the much younger Kahne.
In fact, after the first six races Kahne had an average finish of 27th and was 31st in the championship and in danger of dropping out of the all important top 35.
An unlikely win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend, however, stopped the bleeding, but only temporarily.
In the next four races he had only one top 10 finish — at Dover — and the team was back in 17th place in points.
But a second-place finish at Kentucky, a top 10 at Daytona and a win at Pocono in successive races in July punted Kahne back into the championship picture.
And he has not looked back since.
His third-place finish at the opening Chase race at Chicagoland last week vaulted the No. 5 team from 11th to fifth going into Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, making him at the very least a contender to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
“I feel like we have kind of slowly made ground all season long since about the seventh, eighth race,” Kahne said Friday at New Hampshire. “We made progress and have got closer. I feel like we get stronger each week together and last week was probably our best overall race that we have had all year. We didn’t win, but minus not winning I think overall we did a really good job.”
Kahne, as he has moved up in the championship standings, has also gained confidence that his team can be a player as the Chase winds through the final nine events.
“To me everything keeps getting better,” he said. “I would like to keep gaining points as we have done it all year. I think we can keep going in that direction.”
Kahne said he expects that the championship will tighten up with each race.
“It’s going to get tougher as it goes for sure,” he said. “(At New Hampshire) something could happen and you could fall back a little bit, but the points are still really close.
“I think until you get to about the fifth race, who knows where everybody is going to go.”
When it gets down to the final three races — Texas, Phoenix and Homestead — Kahne thinks he will be there in the thick of things.
“I think that we have a strong team and everything really looks good for us right now.”
VETTEL BACK ON TOP
Back-to-back Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel rocketed to the top of the speed chart in both practice sessions for Sunday’s Singapore Grand Prix.
In his final practice Vettel laid down a lap of one minute, 48.340 seconds in his Red Bull Renault, more than three tenths faster than runner-up Jenson Button in a McLaren Mercedes who recorded a lap of 1:48.651.
Vettel wasn’t ready to accept that he is the favourite come Sunday.
“We can be quite happy, but let’s see what we do tomorrow,” he said. “It is only Friday. Especially around here it is not very conclusive because people might be in traffic and get stuck (on Sunday).”
Fernando Alonso was third quickest for Ferrari at 1:48.896, ahead of Mark Webber in the other Red Bull Renault at 1:48.964.
Lewis Hamilton was fifth fastest for McLaren at 1:49.086 and Force India’s Paul di Resta rounded out the top six at 1:49.300.
Alex Tagliani and Patrick Carpentier will trade their four-wheel-racing experience for two wheels at the SuperMotoCross Monster Energy event at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Sept. 29. ... Martin Roy has clinched the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series rookie of the year honours even before the start of Saturday’s Pinty’s 250 At Kawartha Speedway. He recorded five top 10s this season and is currently ninth in the championship point standings, with a best result of fifth at the Edmonton Indy in the No. 90 Veloce/Lemken/Batteries Expert Dodge.
PAPIS IN IT TO WIN IT
D.J. Kennington, the odds on favourite to win his second NASCAR Canadian Tire championship Saturday at Kawartha Speedway on Saturday, will face a new foe when the green flag drops on the Pinty’s 250.
Max Papis, a former IndyCar star and a semi-regular in the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, will be in the No. 24 Nano Spark/AW Millwrights Dodge, prepared by another two-time champion Scott Steckly.
And Papis told The Toronto Sun Friday he “is in it to win it.”
Papis said in January of this year Steckly phoned him to ask for help with his road course driving, a weak link in the No. 22 Canadian Tire Dodge team’s armour.
“So I came up to Canada for some testing with Scott at the ICAR Circuit in Montreal,” Papis said. “A few months later Scott called again and asked if I wanted to drive in the season finale at Kawartha. I said sure, but only if he could build me a race car that could compete for a win.”
A native of Como, Italy, Papis said he has no intention of just driving around for 250 laps on the 3/8ths mile oval just south of Peterborough.
“I want to be in a competitive ride,” he said. “If I have a chance to win, of course I am going to go for it. I know that D.J. is going for the championship but I am a racer, just like he is, who wants to win every time I am on the track.”
Papis is no stranger to racing in Canada, with four top 10 finishes out of six Toronto Indy races from 1997 to 2003 and a win in the Rolex Grand-Am Series at Mt. Tremblant in 2004.
He has also partnered with Toronto’s Ron Fellows for the Corvette Racing team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.