Once regulars in the Chase, both Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle face missing the Sprint Cup playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Kahne enters Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway 39 points — nearly a full race back — out of the final transfer spot. Biffle is 135 points out of the final transfer spot, meaning he must win at either Michigan, Darlington or Richmond or he’ll miss the playoffs.
Kahne got off to a good start Friday. He was eighth on the speed chart in practice, while Biffle was 23rd.
Both drivers have made the Chase three of the last four seasons. Kahne’s best finish of fourth came in 2012, his first year with Hendrick Motorsports. Biffle’s best finish came in 2005 when he placed second to Tony Stewart for the title.
Kahne is seeking to make the Chase despite declining results, something Hendrick Motorsports has faced this season.
Kahne is worse in green-flag speed (he was 13th last year compared to 19th this year), has run fewer laps in the top 15 (60 percent last year compared to 50.1 percent this year) and has yet to led a lap this year.
“That’s terrible,’’ Kahne said of not having led any of the 6,401 laps run this season. “You can lead a lap easily. You don’t have to be fast to lead a lap. It’s terrible not to lead a lap in this series, as good a team we have and the company that we race for. We need to. We need to figure out how to lead laps. We need to figure out how to do a lot of things. We’re not going to end the year with no laps led.’’
Kahne has solace in that two years ago Martin Truex Jr. led one lap the entire season. This season, Truex has led 1,006 laps this season, second only to Kyle Busch (1,243 laps led) and has a playoff spot set.
While Truex and his Toyota teammates have excelled this year, Kahne and his Hendrick teammates have struggled with speed this year.
“The speed of your car is what you’ve got,’’ said Kahne, whose average finish is 17.0. “We’re working hard to go faster. Right now we’re consistently 13th to 16th or 13th to 18th. It’s definitely not good enough.’’
Kahne’s performance has led to questions about his status with Hendrick Motorsports, which recently signed William Byron to drive in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports next year. Kahne’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports goes through 2018 but Kahne’s focus is on improving the performance and not the contract’s length.
“If I haven’t performed by 2018, I need to leave,’’ Kahne said. “It’s pretty simple.’’
As for Biffle, his contract expires after next season, but he sees progress. Roush Fenway Racing is markedly better than last year but still has work to do to return among the sport’s elites.
Biffle ran in the top 15 in 20.7 percent of the last laps last season. This year, he’s up to 37.1 percent. An issue has been finishing races. He’s failed to finish five races and has an average finish of 21.3. His average finish last year was 20.0 and he was running at the end of every points race.
“Last year was like give me a razor blade,’’ Biffle said. “It was bad. What is the frustrating part of last year was that everybody was working so dang hard. That happens when you run bad or you don’t have fast cars, you work three times as hard and three times as much as every other team. When you’re running good and having success, it seems like you’ve got a tenth of the work because you’re walking around like ‘We’ve got this. You’re fine-tuning.’’’
Biffle saw the progress when he placed eighth at Daytona in July, sixth at Kentucky and fifth at New Hampshire. He’s hopeful that progress returns this weekend at Michigan — site of Biffle’s most recent series win in 2013. He also has the most wins, four, among active drivers at Michigan.
“I feel good,’’ Biffle said. “I feel good about the speed of our cars and the opportunity to win these next two weeks. We were really fast last year at Darlington. I feel good about it. I really do. This year at Michigan … we didn’t qualify that good, drove all the way up to 10th or 11th, I think 10th and on the green flag pit cycle. We pit (Lap 102) and caution comes out (103) and I’m on the bumper of (Jimmie Johnson) to pass him to get on the lead lap. It’s just been that type of year for us. If it could happen, it does. It’s just a matter of catching the break right.’’
For both Biffle and Kahne, their chance of making the Chase becomes more challenging as the series moves closer to Richmond.