LOUDON, N.H. -- Kasey Kahne's bid for his first NASCAR title may have lasted all of 66 laps.
The engine on Kahne's No. 9 Dodge blew as he made his way down the frontstretch during Sunday's race at New Hampshire, sending him to a 38th-place finish and leaving him in a deep hole with nine races remaining in the season.
Kahne qualified 11th and was working inside the top 10 but sensed something was wrong. He felt the car get a little rough as he drove down the backstretch. Moments later smoke billowed from under the hood and through his dashboard.
"Blown up," Kahne said over the radio as he crawled back to pit lane.
Kahne was seeded fifth among the 12 drivers in the 10-race Chase, and his berth in NASCAR's playoffs had been a rare bit of good news for the troubled operation at Richard Petty Motorsports.
The 29-year-old Kahne admitted before the race he wasn't sure who was in charge at RPM after vice president Mark McArdle left just days after the company announced it would merge with Yates Racing and move from Dodge to Ford in 2010.
Still, he praised crew chief Kenny Francis for keeping him focused in the face of all the uncertainty. They'll need to rely on it going forward.
Francis pulled Kahne into the garage shortly after his driver talked to reporters and the two spent several minutes looking at the engine trying to diagnose how things went wrong.
"The gauges all looked good, but I knew that it was coming," he said.
Kahne tried to stay positive. He narrowly made the Chase during the last race of the regular season at Richmond and knows if the engine had blown a week earlier he wouldn't be chasing the title at all.
"We just have to work extra hard now," Kahne said. "You never know how this is going to work in the Chase, you never know if you can have a mulligan or not. We'll be 12th when we leave here, hopefully we can make gains in this final nine."
It won't be easy.
Three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson is the only driver in the Chase's five-year history to finish worse than sixth in New Hampshire and go on to win the title. He finished 39th at New Hampshire in 2006 but then stormed through the next two months, including a stretch where he finished first or second in five straight races.
While Kahne came into the Chase with momentum -- winning twice and adding four other Top 10s in the final 11 races of the regular season -- he hasn't exactly thrived at some of the Chase tracks. His best career finish at Dover, site of next week's race, is sixth.
"We need to make sure we don't have issues and finish these races out strong," he said. "We're going to have to win and get extra points and do everything we can to fight back after this."