Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis were magic in their first Sprint Cup season together in 2006, winning a series-best six races, making the Chase and finishing eighth in the points. They were expected to become the next great driver/crew chief combination, another Jeff Gordon/Ray Evernham or Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus combination that would win races and championships going forward.
Their collapse in 2007 -- when Kahne fell to 19th in the points, didn't win a race and had only one top-five -- had people talking, too, but in an entirely different way. Were Kahne and Francis a one-season wonder? Could they ever be a force again?
The organization Kahne and Francis worked for was undergoing major changes during that long season in 2007. George Gillett became majority owner. Team founder Evernham's role and impact on the team was reduced. A racer replaced by an investor. It undoubtedly had an effect on Kahne's performance.
Kahne and Francis made it most of the way back in 2008. Kahne won at Lowe's Motor Speedway and Pocono and finished second at Michigan in a four-race stretch in May and June to forge his way into the top-12. He was eighth with four races to go to qualify for the Chase before disaster struck. Kahne had an engine failure at the second Michigan race and was caught up in an accident at Bristol. Back-to-back 40ths dropped him out of the Chase with two to go, and an eighth at California and 19th at Richmond weren't enough to get him back into it.
One salient point must be made: Kahne's 14th in the final points was the highest for a Dodge driver. He was the best in class.
The offseason brought more changes to the organization, with Gillett buying Petty Enterprises and forming Richard Petty Motorsports.
Through it all -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- Kahne and Francis have stuck together, and in their fourth season together, they are quietly building a program that can make the Chase. Kahne finished a season-best fifth Sunday at Bristol. He was seventh at Atlanta and 11th at California. Kahne is up to sixth in the points.
"We've made gains the past two weeks," Kahne said. "The first three races, I felt like we were on the edge and not sure really what way we were going. The last two weeks, everybody at Petty Motorsports has done an awesome job on this Budweiser Dodge Charger and we've made some nice gains."
It's still early and some might say premature to consider who's running well enough to make the Chase. Kahne was also sixth in the points after five races last season and fell short. But this is the difference in 2009: the Dodge, with its new nose, is clearly a better car for Kahne and Francis to take into battle. Kurt Busch's dominant win at Atlanta and his second place in the points proves it.
Francis helped guide Jeremy Mayfield into the Chase in 2004 and 2005 as crew chief and team director at Evernham, where he began as race engineer for Bill Elliott in 2001. Francis' credentials to make the Chase are stronger than Kahne's.
Kahne, 28, is in his sixth full Cup season and has nine wins. Those numbers speak to talent and experience, with a big upside in the right situation.
Perhaps most importantly, Kahne and Francis believe in each other. Either could have found an excuse to part company in the past two offseasons with all that has gone on at an organization that has gone through so many operational changes. It is a paramount factor in a garage filled with talented drivers and crew chiefs.