Six races into this season – and six races into his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports – Kasey Kahne was 31st in points with no top-10 finishes.
It would have been difficult for Kahne and his No. 5 team to get off to a worse start than they did. He wrecked three cars during Daytona Speedweeks – including in the Daytona 500 – and then showed up to Phoenix the next week and crashed again.
Things didn't get much better for another month, and there was suddenly more talk about Kahne staying in the top 35 than making the Chase.
For a driver who came into the season full of optimism after waiting 18 months to get into the No. 5 car, it was a bitterly disappointing and frustrating start.
That seems like a long time ago now, though. With one race remaining until NASCAR's playoff field is set, Kahne is a near-lock to make the Chase as a wild card.
Defy the odds? That describes Kahne's comeback this season pretty well.
"We haven't made the Chase yet," Kahne said. "... But this year has been pretty good from where we started to where we're at now, not matter what. We came a long way."
So what happened? And how did Kahne get through it?
The troubles started in Daytona with the three wrecks, but drivers can brush off a crash at restrictor-plate tracks much easier than they can when more things are within their control at a downforce track.
Kahne's low point, he said, came the following week at Phoenix.
Returning to the track as its most recent winner – Kahne went to Victory Lane at Phoenix last November – he was a heavy favorite to pick up another win. And his car was so fast in practice, even Kahne's new Hendrick teammates thought he would repeat.
"I remember Chad Knaus coming into the debrief meeting and saying, 'We're pretty good, but we're nowhere near as good as you guys,'" Kahne said. "It was like, 'C'mon...by the end of the race, I know you guys are going to be the fastest car.' But I remember him saying that in the meeting.
"I just went into that race ready to go and ready to win – and just totally screwed up."
Early in the race, Kahne came off Turn 4 too aggressively and hit the wall. Angry with himself, he later said he needed to calm down in order to achieve better results.
But when success didn't come over the next few weeks despite having fast cars, Kahne said he began to wonder: "Is this just us?"
"It was crazy how you can do so many things right and then it's done," he said. "So many things go wrong quickly. That was about a month and a half of really hard times.
"We didn't go in (to the season) thinking we were just going to run mediocre – we went in with high expectations. When you have all that, it was really tough at times. The best thing about it all was we always had speed from the start of the year, whether it was testing, practice, qualifying – or during the race before something happened. That was the main thing that kept me going, just confident we could get rolling."
So when was the moment when Kahne felt everything was turning around? In an interesting twist, it was the Martinsville race – in which he finished 38th due to a blown engine.
On that day, Kahne started from the pole and was running third halfway through the race – and even catching teammate Jeff Gordon for the lead. Considering it was one of his worst tracks on the Sprint Cup Series circuit, Kahne felt encouraged. Plus, he said, the team still had plenty of room to make adjustments and make the car better.
So even though his engine blew up, Kahne felt an odd sense of peace.
"I was perfectly fine with it," he said. "It wasn't the end of the world. I just felt really good about what we did that day prior to that engine."
Kahne climbed atop Gordon's pit box to watch the rest of the race – anticipating Hendrick's 200th victory – and had time to think about his season as he watched the competition zoom by.
"I really felt like that was kind of a turning point for me, even though we didn't finish," he said.
And guess what? It was. The next week, Kahne went to Texas and finished seventh. The race started a streak of seven straight top-10 finishes, which included a victory in the Coca-Cola 600.
Suddenly, Kahne was back in contention. His hot streak vaulted him from 31st to 14th in the standings, and a second victory – in July's New Hampshire race – put him in solid position for a wild card spot.
He's now been in 11th place for the last five weeks, and there's a chance he could even get into the top 10 at Richmond. Even if he doesn't, though, he figures to make the Chase as a wild card barring a bizarre set of circumstances.
Once he gets into the playoffs, the No. 5 team figures to be mentioned as one of the championship contenders – quite a turnaround from just months ago when the Chase hopes looked like a longshot.
In that sense, Kahne's "Defy The Odds" story might not be done just yet.