Kasey Kahne puts the hammer down

LOUDON, N.H. -- Kasey Kahne was getting tired and his legs were cramping last Sunday as he approached the final mile of a triathlon in Charleston, S.C.

He was ready to give up and walk.

Then something inside of the Hendrick Motorsports driver told him to push harder and keep running all the way to the finish line.

That's how this season has been for Kahne. He was 31st in points six races into the season, as far from Chase contention as New Hampshire Motor Speedway seemingly is from civilization.

But something inside wouldn't let Kahne give up on making NASCAR's 10-race playoff. Something deep down forced him to push harder.

His mental toughness and perseverance are paying off.

Kahne's win on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway put him temporarily in control of the first of two wild-card spots -- 12th in points with two victories, one more than any other driver in the top 20. You could argue he's a championship contender with two wins and 10 top-10s in the past 13 races.

But like the triathlon, Kahne knows he can't let up.

"It is hard," said Kahne, comparing this season to a triathlon. "You can ease up and people will take advantage of you."

On this day, Kahne was the one taking advantage. When Denny Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb had a miscommunication on how many tires to take with 76 laps remaining, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver went from in command of the race to 13th.

You could hear the frustration in Hamlin's voice as he left pit road.

"Holy s---, what happened?" he said over his radio.

Grubb explained that he went with four tires when the rest of the leaders took two.

"Why four?" Hamlin asked.

Grubb explained that he thought that's what his driver wanted during their split-second conversation to determine strategy. His driver explained that wasn't the case at all.

"Oh, God," Hamlin said with a sigh.

Said Grubb, "My bad. Go out there and make it up on me. Kick their ass."

Hamlin, who showed in 2010 how mentally tough he was when he won at Martinsville a few days after knee surgery, kept plugging. He moved within a second of Kahne with less than 10 laps to go, but ran out of laps before he could catch him.

Seldom, it seems, does the best car win in NASCAR. It happened again on this hot, muggy day when Hamlin finished second despite leading a race-high 150 laps.

It happened in Saturday's Nationwide Series race when Kevin Harvick was comfortably ahead until Amber Cope slowed him enough to allow Brad Keselowski to overtake him and win.

Keselowski didn't complain that he backed into that win any more than Kahne did on Sunday. Kahne figured things would go his way sooner or later after having all that bad luck early in the season when he couldn't buy a good finish.

"Yeah, the luck changed today," Kahne said. "We had great luck for those guys to miscommunicate. I'll take them [wins] any way we can."

Crew chief Kenny Francis agreed.

"I don't know how it happened," he said. "We sure felt we had some we felt were stolen from us. Eventually, it evens out."

Yeah, the luck changed today. We had great luck for those guys to miscommunicate. I'll take them [wins] any way we can.

-- Kasey Kahne

All things being equal, Kahne now is doing what most felt he would when he arrived at HMS this season. With a little more luck he might have at least one more win, having run out of laps at Kentucky as Hamlin did at New Hampshire.

Hamlin never counted Kahne out of this season.

"They always have a chance to win races," he said, disappointment still dripping from his every word. "With our format, you know, all you need to do is win races. They can win races.

"It doesn't matter if they were 20th in points with two races to go [before the playoffs are set], I would consider those guys a [contender] to get in the Chase and win the championship."

The way this season is going, the top championship contender will change every week. Tony Stewart moved to the top of the list a week ago at Daytona, collecting his third win of the year, but was a nonfactor on Sunday.

The week before it was Keselowski getting his third win.

Hamlin could have put himself in that position with his third win on Sunday were it not for one mistake.

"As hard as it is to keep your emotions in check, you have to take it in stride and realize … there is nothing you can do about it," he said. "All you can do from that point forward is figure out how to get the best finish you can that day.

"If you harp on it and moan on it, you're just going to go backward. [Sports psychologist] Bob Rotella has the key: Think forward, not think about anything bad that just happened."

It's like the triathlon. You have to remain mentally strong and positive. Kahne did that in Charleston and beat five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, whom he considers to be in better shape, by 27 seconds.

He did that on Sunday, understanding he had a solid, top-5 car and that if he got a break he could win.

He has done that all season, reminding himself and his team the cars are fast and that good things happen to drivers with fast cars, that the season truly is a long race and there's time to make up ground.

"I feel like we've been pretty tough all year," said Kahne, rubbing his hands to fight back more cramps. "We just haven't finished them off a lot of the times, but we've been there all year long.

"Hopefully, from here on out, we'll get some more top-10s and top-5s in a row, and from here on out we need to stay after it."

Something inside won't let him do anything else.