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NASCAR's Kahne A Long Way Off 2006 Form

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) _ Kasey Kahne should be the logical choice to beat Jimmie Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports gang in the Coca-Cola 600. After all, Kahne beat Johnson on his home turf twice last season.

But, unfortunately for Kahne, it's a brand new year and he's yet to duplicate the success of last season.

Kahne, who won twice at Lowe's Motor Speedway last season, heads into Sunday's race 30th in the points with just one top-10 finish this year. He'd love to end Hendrick's run of eight wins in the last nine points races, but knows he's probably not going to be the driver to do it.

``Yeah, we want to win races,'' Kahne said. ``But you don't come from finishing 20th or 25th to suddenly winning again. Seems like you have to make your way up there, figure things out as quickly as you can. But it takes time.''

And time is against Kahne right now.

Despite winning a series-best five regular-season races, Kahne barely made the Chase for the championship last year. He needed to race his way into title contention in the cutoff event, knocking defending series champ Tony Stewart out in the process.

The hole he's in now is much deeper, and Kahne only has 15 races to mount a furious comeback. He won't launch a frantic pursuit for wins, though. Kahne instead wants to take it one small step at a time.

``I'm just hoping to get consistent again, get back in the top 10, top 15,'' Kahne said. ``Once you start doing that, then you'll have your opportunities as races unfold and work out for you.''

In today's NASCAR, success is measured by the Chase. The drivers who make it had a good year. The ones who don't get in go back to the drawing board. Kahne's hoping to get back inside that top 12.

``It's something we can shoot for,'' he said. ``It seems like it gets further and further away each week with the way we're running. If we can go on a big roll, get a streak of a bunch of top 10s, consistent finishes in a row, lead laps, there's still definitely a shot to get there.''

But he'll need a great run in the longest race of the season to make it happen. And even if Kahne is flawless, he'll still have a hard time contending with Johnson, who hasn't finished lower than second at LMS since 2003.

Johnson fully expected Kahne to be among his top competition this season, and has been surprised with how far behind the No. 9 team seems to be.

``Without a doubt, I thought he was going to be a contender for the championship and race wins like he was last year,'' Johnson said. ``I know they're working hard, trying to sort out their stuff. I think it's been a shock to myself and I'd say most of the racing community.''

But Johnson said the problems likely go much deeper than Kahne. As teams struggle to run two programs _ the current car and the Car of Tomorrow _ it's been a challenge to be successful at both.

Only Hendrick, with wins in all five COT races, seems to have it figured out.

``A lot of that falls back on the organization,'' Johnson said. ``As you get into chassis development, engine development, there's a lot of components that make up the effort that we have at the race track.

``From year to year with rule changes, body changes ... to stay ahead of the curve on that stuff, to really think those things through, takes a lot more than what you see.''

Ray Evernham, Kahne's car owner, won three championships as a crew chief for Hendrick and knows how difficult reaching the top of the sport is. His organization has been decent since its 2001 launch, but he's yet to field a legitimate championship contender, even though Kahne is considered one of the most talented young drivers in the sport.

Evernham blames the recent struggles on himself.

``I think the past year has been very, very busy for me both professionally and personally, and I got probably a little bit too far away from my cars,'' he said. ``I enjoy the cars and I enjoy the guys and that's where I need to be.''

Evernham now is courting a partner for his race team, and hopes he can get a deal done with Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr. He's confident that parent company DaimlerChrysler's recent decision to sell the Chrysler Group to a private equity firm will not hamper negotiations with Gillett or sidetrack the Dodge Motorsports program.

``He's aware of what's going on,'' Evernham said. ``Eventually a NASCAR team is going to grow to not be dependent on the manufacturer. I know George already is a Dodge dealer and has a great relationship with them. But I don't think Dodge being sold has really any input on what George is doing.''
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