A big winner last year, Kasey Kahne is 0 for '07 and learning how difficult it is to get a new car set up just right
THIS IS how bad things are going this season for Kasey Kahne: One year after winning a Nextel Cup--high six races, Kahne and his number 9 Evernham Motorsports Dodge team are finding solace in moral victories. Such was the case on Sunday following a 22nd-place finish in the rain-shortened Pocono 500, during which Kahne had the same handling problems that have plagued his cars for nearly four months. Standing on pit road after the race, crew chief Kenny Francis could only shrug and say, "At least today wasn't a total disaster."
Disaster has come in various forms for Kahne in 2007, three years after becoming the circuit's top rookie and one of its most popular drivers—and a year after the breakout season that should have set him up for a championship run. Instead, he has wrecked out of two races, blown an engine in another and finished off the lead lap six times in 11 other starts. The result at the Long Pond, Pa., track on Sunday marked the eighth time that he failed to crack the top 20. He's not only winless but also 28th in points.
The 27-year-old Kahne has been battling an out-of-balance race car that wobbles dangerously in traffic and corners more like a Greyhound Bus than a stock car. Francis has been working frantically to find a solution, but in the heavily regulated and finely tuned Nextel Cup garage, improvement comes in tiny increments with adjustments to such variables as spring tensions and chassis alignments. "Every race for us is a test session," says Kahne's teammate Elliott Sadler, who ranks 20th in points. "We're showing up to the racetrack with all our cars set up differently just to see if we can hit on something better."
The entire Evernham team, which also includes driver Scott Riggs (36th in points), has been compromised by an inability to master two developments this year: the Car of Tomorrow and the new noses for its Dodge Chargers. Both were tested in the off-season, but the car setups that resulted from those tests proved ineffective almost immediately. "It's like we're running two different race teams," says Francis. "We definitely missed on something, and I'm not really sure what."
The team is hampered by a lack of resources, including the ability to run computerized aerodynamic simulations. Owner Ray Evernham is in negotiations to sell an unspecified share of his team to Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr. Last month Evernham said that he expected the added cash to elevate his team to the level of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR's most powerful operations.
Such prospects are of little consolation to Kahne, whose preseason hopes of contending for the Cup have long faded. He's looking for more immediate signs of encouragement, such as his 11th-place finish at Dover two weeks ago. "That's the only time I've felt like I had a top 10 car," says Kahne. "Yeah, it's disappointing, but it's what we've got."
In NASCAR, even for last year's winningest driver, there are no quick fixes.
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1 Despite skipping three races, Mark Martin (right), who ran seventh at Pocono, is 12th in the standings, ahead of such big guns as Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But Martin, 48, who plans to skip eight more races this season beginning with Infineon on June 24, says he has no plans to compete for the Nextel Cup. "I enjoy being off," he said last Friday. "So if I was leading [in points], like when I missed my first race [on March 25], I still wouldn't do it."
2 The season's two first-time Cup winners are proving that those triumphs weren't flukes. Martin Truex Jr., who won at Dover on June 4, placed third at Pocono and moved up to 11th in the points standings. Casey Mears, who made his winner's circle debut at Charlotte on May 27, finished fourth on Sunday; in three weeks he has climbed 11 spots in the standings to 23rd, only 277 points out of 12th.