Top 20 countdown: No. 17 Kasey Kahne

(Photos: Getty Images)

2008 statistics
Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
14 2 2 4 14
The countdown
No. 20: Martin Truex Jr.
No. 19: Juan Pablo Montoya
No. 18: Kurt Busch
No. 17: Kasey Kahne
No. 16: Revealed Friday

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the Top 20 drivers going into the 2009 season. The order was determined by a survey, which asked six NASCAR journalists – Ricky Craven, Jay Busbee and Jay Hart (Yahoo! Sports); Jenna Fryer (Associated Press); David Poole (Charlotte Observer); and Nate Ryan (USA Today) – to predict the final standings for the 2009 season. The countdown will conclude on Feb. 6 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.

2008 finish: 14th

2009 outlook: Kasey Kahne still looks too young to buy one of his sponsor’s (Budweiser) products, but 2009 is the year he has to start doing some growing up – and fast.

Already a marketing darling thanks to his playful Allstate commercials, Kahne seemed to have everything clicking into position in 2008. He started with top-10s in four of his first five races, picked up wins in the All-Star Race and at Charlotte and Pocono, and was fast eradicating all doubts about Dodge’s abilities to compete at the highest levels.

With just five races left in the race for the Chase, Kasey was ranked seventh in the standings, positioning himself for a run at then-leader Kyle Busch.

What happened next was an epic collapse. Two straight 40th-place finishes sent him plummeting right out of the hunt, and he never recovered, scoring just two top 10s and six finishes of 21st or worse in the final 14 races of the season.

Here’s the question going forward for Kahne: How badly will that late-season collapse affect him?

Kahne is driving under the colors of one of NASCAR’s flagship sponsors, and he’s the gem of the newly-christened Richard Petty Motorsports. But how well will Budweiser, Dodge and his bosses take it if Kahne misses the Chase, again?

What you need to know: For the first 22 races of 2008, Kahne had an average finish of 15.3. For the last 14, it was 22.2, and that included three top-10s. Closing will absolutely be an issue this season.