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What's gotten into Kasey Kahne? Can he repeat that Sonoma surprise this weekend at Watkins Glen?

  Remember this: Richard Petty toasting Kasey Kahne's victory with a large glass of Sonoma's finest (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Kasey Kahne?
   Or maybe Juan Pablo Montoya?
   Kahne's surprise at Sonoma, California, is on everyone's mind this week, as is Montoya's sudden surge at Indianapolis and Pocono, as the stock car tour hits this upstate New York road course.
   Can Kahne repeat? How in the world did Kahne pull off that June win, over Tony Stewart no less?
   Or is this where Montoya finally gets his second tour win?
   Actually, Kahne would just like to get these new double-file restarts down a little better. He and the rest these guys went insane during restarts the final hour of Monday's Pocono 500.
   Kahne says Denny Hamlin did have the fastest car. "But if I wouldn't have blown turn one and got into Montoya, I think Montoya would have been leading before Hamlin, and I don't think Hamlin would have been able to get by him.
    "I feel like I kind of took Juan's chance away from winning.
   "But he still ran second. I'm glad he was able to save it. He did a great job of saving his car after I hit him."
   Kahne was strong again at Pocono, until slamming into Montoya on that late restart.
   NASCAR's new double-file restart rule has drivers rethinking their restart tactics, and they cannot afford to get jumped. And Kahne said he'd been slow to speed on restarts all afternoon there, and he was determined not to give anything up late.
   If the Glen goes like Sonoma, then keep an eye on Stewart, Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Robby Gordon, Kahne says.
   "Those are the guys you've got to beat," Kahne says. "Robby was in the mix and they screwed up; they pitted at the wrong time. Robby would have been right there as well."

  Victory doughnuts by Kasey Kahne in June at Sonoma. Hey, maybe NASCAR has a good marketing opportunity here for Krispy Kreme. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Gordon has a lot on his plate right now, trying to snap a slump and prove that not only can he survive as an owner-driver on the Sprint Cup tour but thrive as well, at least at times – like here.
   But Pocono winner Hamlin warns that restarts here – downhill to the wicked right-hand first turn, and then a long series of esses – could be wild too, like Monday at Pocono.
   "You look at the double-file restarts, how exciting that's made about one minute of each restart -- For about a minute, it's pretty crazy," Kahne agrees. "There's a lot going on."
    But then Kahne notes the car-of-tomorrow still needs NASCAR-tweaks to make it more drivable in traffic. Drivers complain about how hard it is to pass on the track, so they say they have to make the most of it on pit road – which should be a major safety concern – and now on the first few laps of these two-wide restarts.
   "We need to make it more exciting those other three hours of the race that there's not a double-file restart," Kahne says.

   So what was Kahne's surprising edge at Sonoma? Nobody, least of all Stewart, anticipated Kahne winning, and winning like he did.
   "We gained a lot with our brakes -- Our brake system at Sonoma was really good, and you need really good brakes at Watkins Glen," Kahne says.
   "Just as a driver, I picked up a lot at Sonoma, for what I need to go fast. We've been able to go fast for a couple laps in the past, but it never seemed like we could for all 20 or 30 laps (of a fuel run)."
   And brake technology appears to have taken a major leap forward this season. Earlier this season part of Kyle Busch's edge could have been brakes; he mentioned that back in the spring.
    Martinsville is well-known for its brake issues. But Brembo engineers rate this track, Watkins Glen International, as the toughest in NASCAR for brakes. On a scale of 1-to-10, they give Martinsville a 9.0…and the Glen a 9.5.
   The Sonoma track, though tricky in parts, rates only a 7.5; that's on par with the flat one-mile Phoenix track. Loudon rates an 8.0, with its long straights and flat corners; Richmond, a similar high-speed short track, rates an 8.5.
   There are several aspects to braking systems; cooling being a big one.
   Another is how much time a driver is on the brakes. At Martinsville a driver is using the brakes an amazing 35 percent of each lap. At Sonoma it's just 11 percent…though turn 11, that parking lot corner, may be the most difficult corner on the NASCAR tour, with an entry-exit speed differential of 103 mph.
   At the Glen a driver will be using his brakes nearly 25 percent of each lap. And two of the toughest corners here, on brakes at least, are the backstretch chicane (a dogleg created after several bad crashes that, including the death of J. D. McDuffie) and the downhill turn one.


  Now this is the kind of weather everyone wants to see Sunday at the Glen...just as pretty as last summer's stop. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   However brakes and technology may be only part of what's driving Kahne right now. Car owners Richard Petty/George Gillett are still trying to pin down manufacturer's support for 2010.
   They're running Dodges right now, but that deal is up at the end of the season, and there's no indication that sponsorship will be renewed. And it's unclear just how well fellow Dodge team owner Roger Penske feels about all this; Penske's men have been working hard on the new Dodge engine for nearly a year now, while the Petty/Gillette bunch have been running the old model, except on occasion.
   But of course Gillette, the wealthy sports businessman, tried last season to pull off a deal with Toyota, and Petty is reported to be in talks of some sort with Toyota for 2010. Petty, though, could be trying to use the Toyota gambit to leverage a new deal with Dodge…though his other drivers will have to step it up.
   Petty and Gillett have a four-team operation right now, with drivers Kahne, Elliott Sadler, AJ Allmendinger and Sorenson. And Kahne is really the only one producing. It looks like Toyota would like Petty, Kahne and sponsor Budweiser in its camp, and sponsor Best Buy too. But the rest of the package seems up in the air.
   It would seem unlikely that Toyota, given the slumping car sales economy, would be very interested in adding four teams to its NASCAR portfolio. Maybe only one or two. So the pressure is on.
    And Kahne too well recalls how last August went for him: "Right before the chase, we had an engine problem at Michigan (that 400 comes up next weekend), when we were running top-10. Then at Bristol (right after Michigan this month) we were running about eighth, then got in that wreck. We lost a ton of points really quick."
   And Kahne missed the 12-man championship cut.
    "I definitely feel good where we're sitting right now," says Kahne, 180 points in front of 13th-place Kyle Busch, with five races to go till the Richmond playoff cut. "I feel like if we keep it up, we're going to be in good shape.
    "But things can happen so easily…."

    Watkins Glen, in the heart of New York's picturesque Finger Lakes country (Photo: NASCAR)

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