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NASCAR race big for Kahne

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For Kasey Kahne, each of the next 12 NASCAR Nextel Cup races is critical.

Despite finally getting his first Cup victory last month in Richmond, last year's top rookie is nowhere near where he and many others expected him to be after the first 14 races of the 2005 season.

Kahne goes into today's Batman Begins 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., 19th in the season standings, 571 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson and 191 points out of 10th place.

Under the rules adopted last year, only the top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the leader after the first 26 races are eligible to compete for the season title in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship over the final 10 events.

"It's pretty disappointing really to see where we're at," Kahne said Saturday before qualifying fourth for the 400-mile event on Michigan's two-mile oval. "It's not where we should be.

"But we can still turn it around and have a decent season and still have a shot at the Chase if things go really well. But we definitely need to turn it around and get consistent."

It's consistency that Kahne and his No. 9 Evernham Dodge team have been missing most this season.

The 25-year-old driver from Enumclaw, Wash., has four top-five finishes so far this season but also has eight finishes of 22nd or worse.

The problem: The new Dodge Charger.

"The Charger is so different," Kahne explained. "The spoiler rules, the tire rules, everything hurt the Dodges more than anybody else. The Fords are obviously the best car out there, and the Chevrolets are right with them, and the Dodges are a little behind.

"You'll have one Dodge run good one week and the next week that Dodge won't be running as well. That's how it's been all year, and we're really inconsistent compared to all of them."

Team owner Ray Evernham, who also fields Chargers for Jeremy Mayfield, 13th in the points, agrees, but is optimistic that Evernham Motorsports can get things turned around.

"We have speed but we don't have it consistently," Evernham said. "We've been inconsistently fast, which is better than being consistently slow. But we've got to just keep working on our program to get it right.

"You know, Jeremy's right there at the tail end of things and I think the team is performing basically at the same level as last year. And Kasey's kind of been all over the map. Jeremy's sure got a shot at (the Chase) and Kasey's not out of it yet."

There may be no better track than Michigan for Kahne to get things turned around.

In three Busch Series starts here, he has finished 10th, second and fifth. In his two Cup starts, both last year, Kahne finished second and fifth.

"It doesn't relate to last year because of the car, but still the track is the same," Kahne said. "The surface of it is really great and I enjoy racing here. It's a track where we can definitely finish in the top 10 this weekend."

Dodge drivers took four of the top five spots in Sunday's 43-car field, with pole-winner Ryan Newman, Kahne and fifth-place Mayfield among 26 drivers who broke the previous track qualifying record on Saturday, thanks to new 2005 rules mandating softer tires and shorter rear spoilers.

But those rules are also the reason the Dodge teams have struggled in the races this year, while Fords have won seven times and Chevrolets six times.

"That's the difference people don't see," Kahne said. "You don't have as much rear downforce, but that doesn't mean your car is looser. That means, with the Dodges, our whole car is (off), not just the rear.

"So, you're sliding on all four tires and you can't turn a corner sliding on all four tires."

FORMULA ONE: For the first time in the six years the U.S. Grand Prix has run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there will be no Ferrari driver on the starting front row.

Three-time winner Michael Schumacher qualified fifth on Saturday, while teammate Rubens Barrichello, the winner in 2002 and the pole-starter and race runner-up last year, qualified seventh.

Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One champion who has a series-record 83 career victories, and Barrichello are still looking for their first poles and first wins of the season.

The fifth-place start for Schumacher today will be his second-worst in his six races at Indianapolis. His worst was seventh in 2003, although he won the race that year and repeated in 2004 for his third victory on the Speedway's reconfigured 2.606-mile road course.

BUSCH SERIES: At Sparta, Ky., Carl Edwards raced to his third NASCAR Busch Series victory of the year, passing Martin Truex Jr. with a little more than lap to go in the Meijer 300 at Kentucky Speedway. Edwards, who won the Nextel Cup event last Sunday at Pocono after missing the rain-delayed Busch Series race in Tennessee, worked his way back to the front of the field after dropping to ninth with a four-tire stop with 31 laps left. Edwards led 150 of 200 laps in his Roush Racing Ford on the 1 1/2-mile oval, finishing 0.69 seconds ahead of Truex's Chevrolet.