BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) – 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 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.”

Kahne said the Fords and Chevrolets are not having the same problems.

“They aren’t changing that much. They’re either loose or tight and you work on it and fix either loose or tight conditions,” Kahne said. “That’s the way we were last year. This year, we can’t make small adjustments. That’s just not enough.”

Evernham says the Charger is a better race car than the Intrepids the Dodge teams ran in the past. And he remains confident his team and the rest of the Dodge contingent are close to getting things figured out.

“With us, the same things that affect these cars will continue to affect them,” Evernham said. “It’s horsepower, it’s handling, it’s aerodynamics and it’s driver. You’ve got to have all of those things clicking to do well.

“Right now, we’re not as good figuring out what our Dodge Charger needs to be consistent. Jeremy had a shot at running good in Pocono and Dover the last couple of weeks and we just didn’t keep it going. I can’t sit here and say it’s because we don’t have enough money or it’s because of the Charger or this and that. We’ve got the capability to do it. We’ve just got to keep working toward it.”

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