Regardless of whether his numbers so far this season indicate otherwise, Kasey Kahne's thrilling victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday not only put him directly in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup but also immediately vaulted him into eighth in the Chase rankings.
Not bad for two laps' work.
OK, to be fair, Kahne arguably worked harder for his 17th career Sprint Cup victory than he ever had before, particularly with such a meaningful reward on the line.
To use a well-worn NASCAR axiom, yes, he literally drove the wheels off his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
But he also was driving for so much more.
There's his job at HMS, for one.
Chase Elliott is tearing up the Nationwide Series at the age of 18, and with Elliott in the HMS pipeline, it's not a matter of if, but when, he'll get the call from Rick Hendrick to move up to the Sprint Cup Series.
As NASCAR owners are limited to just four teams under their respective roofs, Kahne is in somewhat of a precarious position. If he had lost Sunday and gone on to miss the Chase, who knows how long—or short—his future with HMS could have been.
Let's face it. Jeff Gordon isn't going anywhere anytime soon (unless, perhaps, he wins the championship this season and decides to retire on top).
Ditto for six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, who wants a seventh title to tie Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most career championships. And after No. 7 for Johnson could come Nos. 8, 9 and maybe even 10 before he hangs up his steering wheel for good.
Likewise for Dale Earnhardt Jr. How would Hendrick justify getting rid of NASCAR's Most Popular Driver the last 11 years running, especially with the outstanding season he's been having thus far in 2014?
By winning Sunday, Kahne gave not just his season, but also potentially his career, a huge boost.
Sure, he's struggled unmercifully this season. Prior to Sunday's race, he had managed just two top-five finishes in the first 24 races. But now that he has a win and is securely locked into the Chase, Kahne has been granted a second chance of sorts to rip up what happened to him prior to Sunday and start anew.
Just in time for the Chase, which is the epitome of starting over—even with a field that has been expanded from 12 to 16 drivers this season.
Sunday's win isn't just a second chance for Kahne; it's a new start as well. There's no question he has the talent (we've known that for a decade now), the crew chief (Kenny Francis), and, without a doubt, the team with the best resources and personnel in the business.
In a way, Sunday's win mirrored Kahne's racing life. Nothing has ever seemed to come easy for him. He's always had to work hard—harder than most—to achieve success.
He struggled at underfunded teams earlier in his career, such as Evernham Motorsports, Gillett Evernham Motorsports, Richard Petty Racing and Red Bull Racing.
It was hard not to say from one season to the next, "If only he had the resources to go along with his talent."
He's had those resources for the last three years—and he's made the Chase in all three of those years, I might add. He was a legitimate championship contender in 2012, finishing a career-best fourth in the standings, finally living up to some of that prior billing.
But the key word in that previous sentence is "some." He finished a woeful 12th out of 13 drivers in the 2013 Chase.
When he was leaving the AMS media center after Sunday night's race, Kahne likely saw that it was well past midnight on the clock that hung on the wall.
If so, it provided the perfect metaphor.
Not only did he win his way into the Chase, but he also shook off his previous exasperation and struggles.
Yep, it's about time—Kasey's time, that is.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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