Kahne optimistic that move to Hendrick will revitalize his career
We have entered the one month of the NASCAR season in which the engines are quiet and the high-speed circus that is Sprint Cup Series racing folds its tents. By January, testing will begin for the 2012 season, and in February the season starts up again with three dozen races and two non-points events stretching into November.
So December is the only fleeting moment all year long that drivers have to truly get away from the sport, and most relish the opportunity. It is a chance to take vacations, attend weddings or simply hang around the house doing a whole lot of nothing. Anything except racing.
There is at least one driver, however, who is ready to jump back in his car today. After spending nearly two years in limbo, Kasey Kahne doesn't need an offseason. He needs some stability in his racing career, and he should finally find it with his move to the powerful Hendrick Motorsports organization, where he will replace Mark Martin as the driver of the No. 5 car for 2012 and beyond.
"I'll be so excited and happy to get back in a race car, it's crazy," Kahne said. "[Joining Hendrick] is exciting. It feels good. They've given me such a good opportunity, I need to take full advantage of it and perform. It may take a little bit of time to figure everything out, but I think we can get off to a pretty quick start."
Kahne is optimistic that the move to Hendrick will revitalize his career. It was not that many years ago that Kahne was considered to be one of NASCAR's brightest rising stars. Driving for Ray Evernham in 2006, only two years removed from being named the Cup Rookie of the Year, Kahne won six races and six poles and had 19 top-10 finishes. He posted one more victory that season than eventual series champion Jimmie Johnson. Surely it was only a matter of time before Kahne was holding up a championship trophy of his own.
It hasn't quite worked out that way so far. While Johnson stayed steady with Hendrick and accumulated five banners to hang at the team's headquarters, Kahne's world has been in nearly constant turmoil. Evernham Motorsports became Gillette Evernham when Montreal Canadians owner George Gillett Jr. bought into the team in 2007. Then in 2009 the whole organization merged with Petty Enterprises and was renamed Richard Petty Motorsports.
Amid this unrest, Kahne's career got stuck in neutral. He was good enough to win on occasion (a total of four times in 2008-09) but not good enough to contend for the championship. He missed the Chase entirely in 2007 and '08, made it in '09 but finished 10th in the standings, and then plummeted to 20th in 2010.
Suddenly the can't-miss kid was in danger of becoming irrelevant, an afterthought who had a few highlight moments but mostly runs in the middle of the pack. So it was no surprise that when an opportunity arose to sign with Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne didn't hesitate. The only problem was the opportunity popped up in April 2010, but a spot on the Hendrick team wasn't going to be available until 2012.
Kahne signed the deal and then slipped further into purgatory. Richard Petty Motorsports was a mess hovering on the brink of extinction. Kahne bailed on RPM late in 2010 and signed a one-year deal with Red Bull Racing. Then, midway through 2011, Red Bull announced it was leaving NASCAR at the end of the season, and Kahne was mired in yet another lost year. It's hard to catch up to the other guys when you're always running in place.
"Each time you change [teams], it takes time to figure out the cars and get that feeling you're looking for," Kahne said. "A lot of these guys are working with the same team, the same car, the same engine every year, to where they're just getting better with what they have. We're trying to learn all that, and then get better once we do learn it. It's not the easiest way to win a bunch of races."
Despite all the issues, Kahne said he never gave up on the 2011 season, and it showed with his performance down the stretch. He had the third-most points of any driver during the 10 Chase races, trailing only champ Tony Stewart and runner-up Carl Edwards. Kahne had five top-five finishes and seven top-10s during that stretch, and finished outside the top-15 only once. He broke an 81-race winless streak with a victory in November at Phoenix, and jumped from 21st to 14th in the final standings.
That is the type of performance Kahne had routinely in 2006, and it is the driver Rick Hendrick expects to see behind the wheel of the No. 5 car in 2012.
"I've watched Kasey compete for a long time, and he's just so impressive," Hendrick said. "The talent is there to win races and compete for championships, and he has all the intangibles that make him a great teammate and extremely marketable from a sponsor standpoint. We're in a situation where we can build a long-term, successful program around him, and those opportunities don't come around very often. All the pieces are in place."
Perhaps the biggest piece is crew chief Kenny Francis, who has worked with Kahne since 2006 and has been by his side through all the changes. Francis is making the move to Hendrick with Kahne, an addition that has been met with praise from current Hendrick Motorsports drivers.
"I have a lot of respect for Kenny Francis and his talent and his knowledge," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I feel certain he can make everybody in that company better just by being a part of it."
Johnson, whose success with Chad Knaus has shown him the value of crew chief continuity, said the Kahne-Francis combo is one of the best in the business.
"A lot of things that Kenny Francis has done I am impressed with," Johnson said. "Even the dynamic between Kasey and Kenny, they have stuck together through a lot of stuff, a lot of moving. They have a great relationship and certainly know how to find speed in cars. To go through multiple organizations and figure out how to still win -- that's a big feat. We are really going to enjoy having them."
And Kahne undoubtedly is going to enjoy being with his new team. All indications suggest the move will propel Kahne back to regular Chase contention, possibly as soon as next season. Brad Keselowski said of the drivers who failed to make the 12-car Chase in 2011, Kahne is one of the top candidates to qualify for it in 2012.
"I think he'll fire off in that No. 5 car pretty strong," Keselowski said. "He'll be tough."
So while Kahne is once again going through the tough transition of being with a new team, this move is one he is more than happy to make
"They're always working to get better, no matter how they're performing," Kahne said of Hendrick Motorsports. "When they're winning races they're still trying to figure out how to get more horsepower. Everybody has ups and downs, but they ride that line a little bit higher. When they go down it's not very far, and they get right back up pretty quick."
After several often frustrating years, Kahne is ready to get back up as well.