Kahne looms as real contender in 500

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After a winter of discontent at Richard Petty Motorsports, Kasey Kahne is blossoming once again.

Entering the final year of his contract at RPM, Kahne jumped out of the gates as one of the most viable challengers to Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports dominance at Daytona International Speedway, finishing second in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout and winning the second Gatorade Duel qualifying race Thursday.

"I feel like we've got a real good piece and a real good chance to give (the competition) a run for it," crew chief Kenny Francis said after Thursday's win over Tony Stewart by a margin of 0.014 of a second.

Surprisingly, Kahne said his No. 9 Budweiser Ford can be even better before the green flag waves for Sunday's Daytona 500.

"I feel like we still have a few things we can do to make our car better," Kahne said. "The track changed from this week to last week a little bit. I imagine it will change a little more before Sunday. We need to keep going in that direction on what we learned today.

"Hopefully, we'll be ready to go by the 500. We have a great starting position. The Roush-Yates Ford engine is really, really good. I'm excited for the race on Sunday. We need to get a little bit more out of our car. I think we'll have a shot to hang out up front and hopefully be there at the end."

Sunday's result, combined with his performance through Speedweeks so far, can go a long way toward helping to ease the internal tumult at RPM.

The organization has undergone two mergers in as many years, first with Petty Motorsports following the 2008 season and then with Yates Racing coming into this campaign. The latter change also led to a manufacturer swap from Dodge to Ford and plenty of questions about what's going on internally, as team principals acknowledged they were in talks in September but the deal wasn't completed until December.

Heading into 2010, each of Petty Motorsports' four drivers is in the last year of his contract. In addition, this is the last year of contracts for its primary sponsors.

Questions about the team aren't just limited to off the track. It had many critics about its on-track performance, with Kahne being one of the critics last season.

Heck, it got so bad that in November Kahne seemed as if he couldn't wait to look for another opportunity.

"Come January, I can start looking around. I can talk to other people," Kahne said at the last race of the 2009 season. "... The ups and downs of the team have made it difficult for me to really say, 'Man, I'm going to be here for 10 more years.' I really don't know what's going to happen. Truthfully, I don't know what's going to happen right now."

Despite all the unrest, the driver from Enumclaw, Wash., and his No. 9 crew persevered last season to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and started the season on a high note at Daytona.

"The team is always good," Kahne said. "Those guys, they go. They've been through a lot in the last couple years, and they just keep working right away and giving me great race cars.

"They're pumped. They're excited. So am I. It's nice to work with such a good team."

Combine that optimism with the Ford camp's performance in race trim and glimmers of success from the rest of his team -- teammate Elliott Sadler finished fifth in his Duel race while AJ Allmendinger ran strong but suffered from a pit road blunder -- and Sunday could become the day when talks of turmoil at Richard Petty Motorsports turn into talks of where to celebrate for Kahne.