Kasey Kahne has gained ground in the points and built momentum in the past three Sprint Cup races by finishing seventh at Texas, eighth at Kansas and fifth at Richmond. They were uneventful runs, much to his relief.
Crashes sidelined Kahne in the first four races of the season and a blown engine sent him to the garage at Martinsville. He had been 29th or worse in four of the first six races this season, and he left Martinsville 31st in points.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be when Kahne climbed into the No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Always considered a talented driver, Kahne bounced between several organizations after he made his Cup debut in 2004. He started his career with Evernham Motorsports, which became Gillett Evernham and eventually Richard Petty Motorsports. Rick Hendrick signed Kahne in April 2010, but with no cars available until 2012, Kahne joined Red Bull Racing for the 2011 season. It was a lame-duck season with a lame-duck team, highlighted by a Chase win in Phoenix.
Throughout the turmoil, Kahne has had one constant: crew chief Kenny Francis, who has been with him since 2006. The pair made the Chase in 2009, and when Kahne joined Hendrick this season, Francis followed.
With all their resources, Hendrick was the promised land for Kahne, who, at age 31, seemed poised to take his place among the elite, the drivers who go beyond making the Chase by contending for the championship.
And, then, disaster. Kahne was caught up in a crash at Daytona and his contact with Matt Kenseth on a late restart at Las Vegas was an unfortunate racing incident. Kahne took responsibility for hitting the wall at Phoenix, while running second early in the race, and miscommunication with his spotter led to a collision with Regan Smith at Bristol.
Kahne's fifth at Richmond advanced him to 23rd in the points, only nine behind Jeff Burton in 20th -- the last place that can qualify for wild-card spot. The Chase is within reach and he's had the speed to win races, which is always the goal anyway.
Talladega, a place where you hope to escape trouble as much as win the race, is Sunday. Kahne and Francis are hoping all the trouble is behind them.
"The [restrictor] plate tracks are always a wild card for the whole field, but the [No.] 5 team has some great momentum right now," Kahne said. "I think we've started to turn a corner now. We're getting more consistent on pit road and we're finishing races. We've got to keep working on setups that work best during the race, but we're really close. It feels good to get that top-five at Richmond and have some consistency week to week."
Francis, in his seventh season with Kahne, doesn't regard the three straight top-10s as a turnaround.
"We haven't really turned everything around," Francis said. "We [just] haven't crashed or broken a motor. In most of those races, we were running up front. We've finished races, basically.
"I don't know if I'd call it [bad] luck. It was bad timing, bad situations. You're going to have those issues through the season. Ours have been stacked together at the beginning of the year and put us in a pretty deep hole. Hopefully, we won't have any the rest of the year, and everybody else will have their share. Our car runs good, we just need to stay out of trouble."
Francis isn't concerned about making the top 10 in points for one of the guaranteed spots in the Chase. The No. 5's focus is on winning races.
"I don't look at [the points] that close," he said. "We do the best we can every week and, if you do that, the points will take care of themselves. I don't know if there's time to get into the top 10 or not. Whether we take the top 10 or not, we're going to need to win a couple of races and they're pretty hard to win unless you're Tony Stewart.
"We feel like we're close [to winning]. I felt like at Richmond we had a pretty good car and if we'd restarted on the inside rather than the outside late in the race, I thought maybe we had a shot at winning, as good a shot as anybody."
Francis likes the momentum Kahne and the No. 5 team has.
"It definitely helps confidence when you have a little momentum, from the driver to the engineer, everybody in this thing," Francis said. "Confidence is very important."
Talladega is home to the Big One, those multi-car crashes that are unavoidable.
"From a driver and crew chief perspective, there is a lot at Talladega that is out of your control," Francis said. "You have to have a lot of patience as a driver."