Dustin Long
Monday May 2nd, 2011

His cherubic features have hardened slightly. Call it the aging process if you want, but put part of the blame on the challenges Kasey Kahne has faced in his Sprint Cup career.

While his blue eyes still make some swoon, they also have witnessed a whirlwind of change since he moved to Cup in 2004. His address stayed the same for many years, but the team's composition morphed, taking in owners, spitting others out, merging with teams, changing manufacturers and struggling financially to survive. He finally had enough, leaving late last year to continue his Odysseus-like journey to racing's Promised Land.

He'll drive for Hendrick Motorsports next year where some will say that Kahne's talents will be rewarded with equipment to match for the first time since Ray Evernham oversaw his career.

Until then, Kahne races for Red Bull Racing, a joint venture to help revive that organization and re-energize Kahne.

Saturday night, the union was near perfect. Kahne finished a season-high third at Richmond and teammate Brian Vickers placed 10th, marking only the fifth time since Red Bull joined Cup in 2007 (and second time this year) that both its cars finished in the top-10 together.

"It's kind of been a while since we had a car that could win,'' said Kahne, who added his right knee didn't bother him in Saturday's race, his first since having a second round of surgery on it after Talladega.

This has been an up-and-down season for Kahne. He's had four finishes outside the top-20 to counter his four top-10s. It leaves him 18th in the point standings with such drivers as Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin between him and the final guaranteed Chase spot.

Much of Kahne's success this season has come on the shorter, flat tracks. His struggles have been at the bigger tracks -- where the series will run mainly through mid-June.

Although his strong run Saturday provided hope, Kahne knows that the upcoming races, starting with Saturday night's event at Darlington, could be difficult.

"That's something they're working on pretty hard at Red Bull ever since Texas,'' Kahne said. "We kind of realized that we're not as good on some of those tracks where there's a lot of load in the front tires. Darlington, we're going to need to be better and after that, Dover, Charlotte [and] the next four or five races. We've been looking at it. We need to make some good changes here before Darlington and Dover if we want to run good at those tracks.''

These races aren't just important to try to get Kahne back into contention for a Chase spot, but for Red Bull to show its strength. While Kahne will replace Martin at Hendrick next season, there's a ride available at Red Bull in a year when the free-agent class includes Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Martin, among others.

Red Bull appears to have the money to pay top dollar, but performance will play a key role in attracting a winning driver. Red Bull needs more results like Richmond as contract talks intensify.

"They've still got a fairly new track record,'' Greg Biffle said of Red Bull before he recently signed a contract extension with Roush Fenway Racing. "How many races have they won? If you're going to leave Roush Fenway to go to Red Bull [is it] for competitiveness? For money? Ultimately, we want to win races and economics is a part of it to a degree. Truth be known if we were going to be able to drive something that would damn near win every weekend, we'd probably drive it for nothing. That's just the way it is.''

Red Bull's lone Cup victory in a points race came with Vickers in 2009 at Michigan.

Before the season, Edwards explained how he would decide where to race after this season, saying: "The thing I'm going to do is to do whatever is best for me to go win the most championships I can win.''

As for his future at Hendrick, Kahne said he's had some contact with the team. "We stay in touch, kind of what's going on and how our stuff is going and how theirs is going and the sponsorship stuff that they're working on there,'' Kahne said. "Really, it's pretty much been the 4 car. That's what I try to focus on. We kind of look way out there and think Hendrick next year or something like that, but I've been pretty much staying with the Red Bull guys and trying to focus on this. We need to run better and we need to win races."

Frustrating race:

Tony Stewart's ninth-place finish showed his team's resolve but that wasn't enough to appease Smoke. Stewart was not happy with his continued struggles on the short tracks.

He fell a lap behind the leader within the first 80 laps at Richmond and didn't get it back until about 170 laps later. He fought for his third top-10 finish of the season.

"We have a lot of work to do,'' Stewart said afterward. "We suck right now. I am embarrassed about how bad our stuff is. We can't make our car turn for anything. I mean, we have a lot of work to do right now. There are three organizations that are kicking our rear ends right now something awful. It is going to be a long year if we race like this."

Stewart also struggled at Martinsville, where he was never a factor, spending 3 of 500 laps in the top-15, before finishing 34th. He was 19th at Bristol. His poor performances at those tracks -- along with some misfortune late in races he could have won -- leave him 10th in the points.

Even with such a frustrating start to his season, don't forget that the summer is when Stewart takes charge. Twenty-one of his 39 career Cup victories have come in June, July and August.

Times a changin':

Just look at how things have changed for Tommy Baldwin Racing in the last year.

In a 10-race stretch from April to June a year ago, Baldwin's team failed to qualify for five races, finished 41st or worse four times and employed five drivers.

Saturday, Dave Blaney finished a season-best 13th to build upon a momentous couple of weeks for Baldwin's one-car team. It started at Talladega, where Blaney led 21 laps, more than all but one driver that day before finishing 27th after a late spin. A few days before Richmond, Baldwin announced deals with two companies, giving him a primary sponsor for all but three of the remaining races. And then came Saturday's Richmond finish. Difficulties remain but it's not like what Baldwin was going through at this time a year ago.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.