After years of turmoil, Kahne happy to find stability with Hendrick
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kasey Kahne wasn't so much stalking as observing from closer range than usual at Daytona last month. After more than a year of watching his future Hendrick Motorsports teammates from afar, he was interested in just how much fun current teammate Jeff Gordon was having at a Sprint Cup test at Daytona International Speedway.
"Being an outsider you look over and think, 'Man, I wonder how they act?'" Kahne said, leaning against the outside of his Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet hauler. "I've been following Jeff around some. Well, not really following him, but watching because I'm part of the team now."
Signed by Hendrick Motorsports in 2010 while still under contract with Richard Petty Motorsports, Kahne has the look of a kid very much anticipating opening a pile of new presents. After working in several tenuous work environments since his first Cup team, Evernham Motorsports, went through a series of partnerships, mergers and sales -- after his time with RPM, Kahne was farmed out to now-defunct Red Bull Racing for the 2011 season as Mark Martin completed his final contractual year in the No. 5 -- Kahne has finally found the stability he thinks he needs to regain his form as a weekly contender. With that will come pressure and expectations. Those are natural and acceptable by-products, he said.
"I look forward to that," he said. "Hendrick Motorsports is the best of everything."
Kahne refused to use poor equipment as an excuse for winning just five times and finishing no better than 10th in points in five seasons since winning six races and finishing eighth in the final points in 2006 with Evernham. The key to thriving in his new environment, he said, will be consistency.
"I've been pretty fortunate. We've had some good equipment, good cars and parts and pieces," Kahne said. "There has been times when it hasn't been perfect, but I think all the teams I've driven for have had good equipment. Sometimes the engine is not running as well as some other guys there, and then you get it back and you're running really well.
"It's been ups and downs and it's been pretty big at times, but you have that everywhere. The best thing about Hendrick Motorsports to me is the ups and downs are much smaller. They stay at a much more level playing field all the time and the previous six years, you have these huge waves you're riding up and down. It's much steadier over here and I look forward to that over here."
The wave was substantial at the end of the 2011 season, even with the Red Bull organization dissolving into oblivion beneath them. Kahne and Kenny Francis -- his crew chief since 2006, who will be joining him at Hendrick -- had a win, five top-fives and seven top-10s in the final eight races to finish 14th in points.
"I thought probably we were the third-best team in the final 10 races, easy," Kahne said, comparing himself to champion Tony Stewart and runner-up Carl Edwards. "So you feel like you're in a groove, the way you're doing things in your car, the way you are communicating with your team. All that stuff was solid. We can carry all that stuff to the start of this year. It's going to be a little different [this year], because ... everything is different when you change teams and we'll have to learn that, but we're definitely riding a bit of a high from the end of last year and how we performed."
Teammate and five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson said he is "looking forward to really spending time with him [Kahne] and doing debriefs and picking his brain as we get into it. Clearly he can drive the car."
Former owner Ray Evernham, who works as a consultant in current team owner Rick Hendrick's automotive group, warned that Kahne should not be expected to win immediately despite the improvement of his lot. The No. 5 Chevrolet has not reached Victory Lane since Mark Martin won five races in 2009.
"They've matured through a lot of things together," Evernham said of Kahne and Francis. "They have fought obstacles together and conquered them. They've been through the ups and downs at my place when I sold it to the Gillette family; they went through the Richard Petty thing; they went through a year at Red Bull; and I think they've been able to keep their focus. They're going through a little bit of a change here, but they'll also have a lot of support to help them pick up the gaps.
"I want to make sure that people are, again, being fair to Kasey and to Kenny with expectations ... I heard somebody the other day say, Well, this is his big shot. Well, it is, but it doesn't have to be this year. I believe that they will do what they consistently did at other places: continue to improve. I think they're both patient enough to do that."
Former Daytona 500-winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he has "no knowledge" of what style of racing will dictate SpeedWeeks even after another round of NASCAR tweaking the aerodynamic and cooling the characteristics of the race cars.
Responding to fan displeasure, NASCAR made a series of moves to eliminate the two-car drafting tandems prevalent at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega since 2009. Though two-car pods have theoretically been engineered out of existence because cars will begin to overheat after just a few laps, Earnhardt Jr. pondered developments made by teams in the last few weeks and how they could change the game.
"Tandems were hard to do [in testing]," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It was doable, but it was hard to do. ... You'd run hot. Guys went home and studied and did their homework. Some will probably get the tandems to work out. It'll be lights out for them. They'll be gone."
Former race-winner, Kevin Harvick, too said, "tandem's [are] gonna win the race," perhaps in a decisive late move for the checkered flag.