- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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After a wreck ended his day almost before the race got started Monday at Talladega Superspeedway, Kasey Kahne's hoping a trip to International Raceway is just what the doctor ordered.
After coming close numerous times to reaching Victory Lane during a tremendous rookie campaign in 2004, Kahne finally got there at the three-quarter mile track last May. It was supposed to be the start of numerous wins for the driver, but it was the lone highlight of what was a rather mediocre season.
Now, with two wins already under his belt this year, Kahne's seemingly cashing in on all that potential. Sitting fourth in the Nextel Cup standings, he hopes the trend continues in the Crown Royal 400.
"It's important to go back there and run well," Kahne said. "We were able to do that last year the second race of the year. We finished eighth and we were pretty strong all night. We never got up to the leaders but we were pretty strong. You know, going back to this race, the race that we actually won is big. I mean, you'd love to do it two years in a row.
"I know things are going to be a lot different this year. We tested there and the setup that we ran last year was two seconds off the pace. It wasn't even where we needed to be. So we had to do a lot of work to figure out a new combination, and hopefully we'll have that when we go back and be able to put up a good fight."
It's safe to say that Kahne heads into this year's race with a lot more confidence than he had at Richmond a year ago.
"I'd say the biggest difference is that we can win now and that we have and we won at that track and we feel we can win there again," he said. "Going into that track last year, I think my average finish there in the two previous Cup races was probably 28 or 27, somewhere in there. So I didn't go in there with like really high expectations.
"I guess I should have went in with higher expectations, because, I mean, it's just a track that we can run good at. But I will know that we've won there. Once I win at a track, I'll go back there the rest of my life knowing I've won here at least once, I can win here again if things go right."
While Kahne showed just what he could do as a rookie with Evernham Motorsports, the win elevated his stature in the eyes of many. Don't count the driver among that contingent, however.
If anything, he said the win showed he had a good car on that particular day. He believes his performance thus far in 2006 is a better indication of things.
Now he feels people should look at him as a contender every week and he feels better about that than just one win.
Looking at the championship, and first qualifying for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Kahne's approaching things differently this year.
"I think there is a different mindset. You know, last year, all I wanted to do was to try to win races," Kahne said. "I didn't even think about points half the time. Basically all I thought about was winning and that was the wrong approach.
"This year, it's more about making sure we finish every race, being consistent, getting the car to drive really well in practice, and having better cars in the race. And that's what I've focused on, you know, just being consistent and finishing is the main thing this year."
Kahne's trying to learn from the best as he gears up for a championship run.
"If you're a race car driver, you can learn from a Jeff Gordon or a Tony Stewart, a Mark Martin, those type of guys. Those are the guys that you look up to and the guys that you try to, you know, figure out how they race and how you need to race in order to be a champion or in order to win races," Kahne said. "It's nice when you can look up to those guys and actually learn things from them just by watching them and kind of see what they do each and every day."
Teammate Jeremy Mayfield, though, is the Evernham Motorsports driver truly in need of a strong evening. A 13th-place finish at Talladega got him back on track, but he's still mired deep in the standings.
"Hopefully, it sets us up for Richmond. I'm proud of my guys. We were down, about as low as you can get heading into Talladega. We needed something good to happen and it did," Mayfield said. "We're going in the right direction. We just have to keep doing what we're doing. I think we're ready to break out and have some good runs. Everything is in place. We just need to get everything working together.
"Richmond has produced some special moments for Jeremy Mayfield. We've had success there. I think there are more good things in store for us at Richmond. We've been on the defense. Now, it's time to break out the offense. We'll try to do that Saturday night under the lights."
Kahne hopes that's the case, too.
"We all know Jeremy can drive and get it done, and he will," Kahne said. "It's just a matter of everything starting to click their way. I think hopefully they are going in that direction. Richmond is a great track. Darlington is a great track. Hopefully he'll have a couple really good races over the next month."
Runs like Kahne's been having all season.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com
Kasey Kahne's career looked ready to take off after last May's win at Richmond. It hasn't yet, but it might soon, writes Mark Ashenfelter.