But he’s not ready to relax just yet.
“I don’t think you can really count out anyone in the top 20 just because right now if you’re able to knock-off two wins, you’d be the guy,” Kahne said. “So, that’s going to all change over [seven] weeks. Who knows what will happen.”
Kahne’s instincts certainly were warranted during the first seven years of the playoffs since entry was based solely on the point standings after 26 races. Now that the two drivers with the most victories outside the top 10 also make the cut, the chances of a driver making a big move during the race to the Chase is greater.
Since the playoffs started in 2004, seven drivers have rallied in the final seven races of the regular season to make the playoff field.
None were more stunning than Brad Keselowski last year. He was 21st in the standings seven races before the Chase started, and he not only got in with three victories, he wound up fifth in the final standings.
Right now the only thing that matters is getting into the Chase. Once the playoffs start during the final 10 races, anything can happen.
Just ask Tony Stewart.
A year ago he got into the Chase as the 10th-place driver in the standings. Since he didn’t have a win during the regular season, he started the final 10 races in last place.
And he won the championship.
“I think that whole 14 team (Stewart) and what they did last year showed all of us that it’s not over until it’s over,” Carl Edwards said. “If you can make it into the Chase, truly, just by making it in, you have as good a shot as anyone for the championship.”
If the playoffs were to start on July 29 following the final bye week of the season, Kahne and Kyle Busch would be the two wild card drivers. Edwards is 11th in points without a victory, so he’s on the verge of qualifying by points or victories. While he’s confident about his chances once the playoffs start, he still has to find a way to make the cut.
A year ago, Stewart was in the same position. He was 28 points from falling out of the top 10 – and out of the Chase. But once he got in, everything changed.
Edwards is looking for the same late surge. One win in the next seven races would be a good start.
“None of this stuff right now matters, other than it puts you in the Chase or it doesn’t,” he said. “I think all of us in the garage look at Tony and what that 14 team did last year and we all feel like we could do the same thing, we just need that opportunity. That’s where our team is right now.”
Right now, the focus is getting to the playoffs. Thoughts of a championship usually don’t start until the field is set.
Only one points leader with seven races remaining in the regular season has gone on to win the Chase. That happened in 2006 with Jimmie Johnson.
Although Kahne is the leader among the wild card hopefuls, he knows how quickly things can change in the next seven races – especially if Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman or Joey Logano manage to win a second race.
“It’s never enough,” Kahne said. “But I think three would put you in a real good spot. Two helps, but three would put you in a real good spot. We’re going to stay after it.”
And once the playoffs start, everything, especially the pressure, starts from scratch.