Before the first practice laps had been run at Daytona this past February, NASCAR experts everywhere were predicting which 12 drivers would qualify for the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup to compete for a championship. Among the presumed "locks" to make the field were Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. After all, they were part of what most consider to be the premier organization in NASCAR: Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon was coming off his best season since 2007, and Kahne's win in last season's penultimate race was proof that he and crew chief Kenny Francis could field a dominant car. This was why the early struggles they shared this season had many shaking their heads and writing the drivers off as Chase afterthoughts.
But now that they are in the Chase, both Gordon and Kahne are once again being viewed by many as championship threats.
The casual fan might see the label of "wild card" next to their names and immediately dismiss them and their title chances. However, those who follow the sport with regularity know that their points positions don't reflect the performance of their race cars.
In many races, both drivers had potential race-winning cars that were taken out as a result of horrendous luck. Gordon alone fell victim to blown engines, flat tires, accidents, pit mishaps and a stalled-out David Reutimann during the season's first half.
Now, though, the slates have been all but wiped clean, and the bad luck that plagued them both is a thing of the past. Both drivers are extremely confident in their cars and race teams.
That means the rest of the field should take notice and be worried.
The tracks in the Chase cater to the strengths of both drivers. Kahne won in Charlotte and New Hampshire this year, and both tracks host Chase races. Furthermore, he has been great on mile-and-a-half tracks and is the defending champion of the Phoenix race.
Meanwhile Gordon will be one of the favorites at Martinsville, where he dominated in the spring. He also had one of the best cars at Dover and, like Kahne, has performed well at the cookie-cutter speedways this season.
Factor in Kenny Francis and Alan Gustafson, two of the sport's best crew chiefs, and you have two dynamic race teams.
Sure, one would have to be crazy to overlook Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin when predicting a Chase winner. They earned their current spots atop the standings prior to this weekend's Geico 400 by putting together a number of superior performances during this season.
For Gordon and Kahne, however, there is nowhere to go but up. Both feel as though they have nothing to lose, and such a "go-for-broke" mentality could prove beneficial during the Chase.
In other words, expect them to hold nothing back.
These next 10 races will define the entire season. For Gordon and Kahne, these races are an opportunity to erase the bad memories of the spring and write their own little chapter of NASCAR history. They are certainly two to watch until the season's conclusion.
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