Kahne sees a turnaround on the horizon in 5 car
By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
March 28, 2012 4:46 PM, EDTt
CONCORD, N.C. -- He was involved in three wrecks during Speedweeks, most notably one in the Daytona 500. At Phoenix, he got loose off a corner and hit the wall. At Las Vegas, he came home in the middle of the pack despite setting a track record in qualifying. At Bristol, he crashed when his spotter told him he was clear, and he wasn't. At California, he competed with the knowledge that one slip-up might knock him -- unthinkably -- outside of the top-35 cars in owners' points, which have guaranteed starting spots in each Sprint Cup event.
It's hardly been the start Kasey Kahne envisioned in his debut season with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that's won 10 titles on NASCAR's premier series, and is chasing its 200th race win. But Kahne looks at the fast cars he has every weekend, looks at the potential within his No. 5 team, and delivers a warning -- don't dare count him out just yet.
I knew going in, that just because I was going to Hendrick Motorsports didn't mean I was going to start winning more races.
-- KASEY KAHNE
"We've got fast cars," he said Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I think all the guys have been really quick at the majority of the tracks we've been to. All the Hendrick guys. I feel like our engines are doing great, our cars are awesome. Myself, I'm still learning things there, but I feel lime we're getting pretty good at it. I feel like we're competitive. We've had some bad luck and made some mistakes and things, but I think we can be a contender as this season goes, for sure."
Much like Jeff Gordon, whose similar run of early season misfortune has him just two spots north of the 27th-place position his teammate currently occupies in the standings, Kahne's cars have been fast every week. That much is evident in Kahne's starting positions this season, the past four of which -- including the track-record pole run at Las Vegas -- have been inside the top 10. The issue has been finishing, something complicated by a mistake here or there, or just plain bad luck.
By necessity, it all reached a head last weekend in Southern California. Owners' points change from 2011 to the current season for this week's event at Martinsville Speedway, and heading to Auto Club Speedway, Kahne sat uncomfortably near the top-35 cutoff. His No. 5 car was loose early, but improved to the point where it was about the seventh-fastest vehicle in the race. Long green-flag runs made it tough for Kahne to gain track position, and rain ended the event before the car came in. But an uneventful 14th-place finish was relief enough, given that it ensured Kahne won't have to make Sunday's race -- or any later ones, for that matter -- on speed.
"I was a little worried at California," he admitted. "If we had one more bad race there, we would have been fighting for position at Martinsville, which would have been unheard of for us. I was glad. We didn't finish where we wanted to, but if 200 laps were there, we would have had a pretty strong car by the end of that race. I was fine with that, and we're solid now. We just need to keep it up. We need to keep finishing strong, having good race cars like we've had, and I think it will all work itself out."
It was difficult not to foresee all kinds of potential in the combination of the 11-time race winner Kahne with Hendrick, the best team of the sport's modern era. Kahne had won with much lesser organizations, including at Phoenix this past fall for a Red Bull team that was a one-year stopover for the driver, and about to go out of business because its sponsor was pulling out. That he was making the move with Kenny Francis, his longtime crew chief and trusted friend, made the pieces fit together that much more snugly.
Or so it seemed. But for all of Hendrick's promise and Kahne's talent, it was still a new team, and it brought with it an adjustment. Drivers like Kahne operate on feel, their bodies telling them how each of the tires are doing, and how the vehicle itself rolls through the corners. Hendrick's cars are somewhat different than what he had been used to at Red Bull -- and Richard Petty Motorsports before that -- and figuring out that feel takes time. At one point in the race in California, for instance, Kahne's car behaved in traffic in a way that was different from practice, and he wasn't prepared for it.
Such are the smaller, unseen fine-tuning processes a new driver must go through with a new organization, regardless of how many races he's capable of winning. Teammates Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all been at Hendrick for years, and to a certain degree know what to expect from the vehicles underneath them. Kahne is just starting to get there.
"They do things for a reason [at Hendrick], and they've done them for a long time," Kahne said. "Jeff and Jimmie and Dale, they know exactly where they're at, and so do their crew chiefs and teams, and they're working on stuff. We are slowly getting there. We have the speed, but putting together that whole race is what is a little more difficult."
Knowing the car is fast helps. So does knowing the owner supports you, no matter how trying the first weeks of the season have been. Kahne said he and Rick Hendrick talk or text every week, and occasionally enjoy longer periods of time together like a flight to California for a sponsor event. Over and over again, he said, the boss has relayed the same message -- the cars have speed, fortunes will change, and you'll be fine. There's never any shortage of encouragement from the top.
"I just think if your owner is still behind you, and speaking highly of what you're doing and how your team is, and sees what your team is and what's going on and isn't putting it all on you ... you just feel good about it," Kahne said. "You feel like you're fine and you'll get through it and you'll figure out what those problems are we've had. Maybe it's bad luck, maybe it's not. But he's been right there and has told me, don't worry about it. We have another car for next week that's just as good, maybe better."
It's all helped Kahne keep up his own spirits. "I feel really confident with everything we have, and it just takes time to get acclimated and figure some of that stuff out," he said. "I think we're getting there, I think we're getting closer. As we put races together, I think we'll show [it] and we'll get back to where we need to be."
That would be battling for race wins and potentially a Chase berth, although Kahne does have to get back inside the top 20 in points to make himself eligible for a wild card to NASCAR's 12-driver playoff. For now, though, sunrise appears on the horizon. The California run staunched the bleeding, for the time being. Kahne's left knee, which underwent surgery for a torn meniscus prior to the Daytona 500, doesn't swell up on him anymore after races. He's even started running again, albeit at a slower pace than he's used to. In the upcoming off weekend, he's heading to Attica, Ohio, to race sprint cars, his first love.
It was that or the Bahamas. Sitting on the couch wasn't an option.
"It's actually a pretty nice couch," he said. "I just don't spend a lot of time on it."
There's too much else to do, primarily salvaging his Sprint Cup season after an opening month of frustration and bad luck. These days, though, Kahne feels like he can see the corner. It's just a matter of turning it, and watching all the potential that exists with his new organization spring to life.
"Probably because of the results, I feel a little bit on edge maybe for some of the races, just because I want to run better and things," he said. "But I knew going in, that just because I was going to Hendrick Motorsports didn't mean I was going to start winning more races. It's still a huge team effort, and there's still a lot of things you have to do right in order to run up front and contend for those wins. It takes a little bit of time. I think we've had some time now, and we're getting pretty close. I think we're pretty good as a team, and hopefully we can start running in the top 10."