Remember when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished 25th in the Sprint Cup standings in 2009?
It’s hard to believe considering the success he’s had lately, but it’s true. The next season didn’t go much better, with little progress, and the son of a legend ended up 21st. If his name wasn’t Earnhardt, he probably would’ve wound up in the TNT booth the next season beside Wally Dallenbach — who actually ran a little better in his season and a half with Hendrick during the late 1990s.
Earnhardt gradually turned it around, though. Hendrick Motorsports moved the No. 88 team from the No. 5 shop to the No. 48′s, in 2011 and the driver was given Jeff Gordon’s old crew chief Steve Letarte. Hendrick seemingly dedicated all of his resources to turn Earnhardt Jr. from a bum into a race winner again. It was just like in _Trading Places,_ when Randolph and Mortimer Duke turned Billy Ray Valentine from a bum to a top investor.
Kasey Kahne can play Louis Winthorpe, III, the guy at the top who has his advantages stripped, loses his confidence and turns into the bum. It seems like a distant memory, but it was only two years ago when Kahne recorded two wins, 19 top 10s and finished fourth in the standings.
Now, he’s tied for 21st this season with a Chip Ganassi Racing driver (Jamie McMurray) and a Richard Petty Motorsports driver (Marcos Ambrose). Meanwhile, his teammates, Gordon, Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson, sit first, third and fourth, respectively, in the standings. They’ve combined for five wins and 17 top-5 finishes.
Kahne, meanwhile, has no wins and has cracked the top 5 just once. You know those questions everyone used to have about why the No. 88 team can’t keep up at Hendrick? They now have them, every week, for the No. 5. That car has four finishes of 31st or worse this season; every other Hendrick team has a max of one.
It’s a safe bet this nightmare isn’t how Kahne envisioned things going at Hendrick when he took a big risk in 2010 and signed with the organization a year and half before it had a seat available. The move showed how badly Kahne wanted to compete for a championship, though. And after a horrendous start to his first year with Hendrick, in 2012, he made the Chase and then made himself a factor for the title. All four Hendrick cars made the Chase that season, but Earnhardt (12th) and Gordon (10th) were a step behind Johnson (third) and Kahne (fourth).
A year later, all four cars made the Chase again, but Gordon (sixth) and Earnhardt (fifth) had improved while Kahne (12th) began his decline — but his story was lost amid all the headlines about Earnhardt and how he was ready to compete for a title, combined with the inevitability of Jimmie Johnson’s six-pack.
Now Earnhardt, who couldn’t win a race unless everybody but Danica Patrick and Richard Petty showed up a couple of years before, has two wins and is one of the fastest cars every week. Kahne, on some weeks, can’t crack the top 15.
Pocono Raceway juxtaposed Kahne and Earnhardt’s new places at Hendrick perfectly. Kahne’s race ended after Kyle Busch — he seems to wreck Kahne a lot — slid up the track exiting turn 1 with Kahne on the outside and placed the front end of the No. 5 hard into the outside wall. Kahne either lost his brakes or his throttle stuck in the impact and crashed even harder into the turn 2 wall. Earnhardt, meanwhile, had a little luck fall his way when Brad Keselowski picked up a giant piece of trash on his grill, lost momentum trying to get it off and allowed the No. 88 to pass him for the win.
Two years ago, Kahne and Earnhardt switching positions the way they have seemed unimaginable; Earnhardt was as confident of a driver as my grandmother at night and Kahne was the great talent finally reaching his potential in top equipment. Now, Kahne is the one lacking confidence and not smiling during interviews.
He’s become the odd man out at Hendrick, and even the strongest of organizations has had difficulties getting all four cars on equal footing. Around 2012-13, Hendrick was as close as it has come to making it happen, but in 2014, the separation between its third and fourth cars is currently 17 points positions.
In the last decade-plus, that has been the norm; the last-place team always seems to be way back. Before Kahne it was Earnhardt, who came after Casey Mears, who was preceded by Brian Vickers and then Terry Labonte.
Now that Kahne is in the position Earnhardt was a few years ago, how will Hendrick react? Is more restructuring coming? Is Kahne going to team with Earnhardt to swindle Hendrick and steal his fortune?
I’m projecting that one of those things happens soon, and I’m leaning toward the first one… although the second would be a lot more fun to write about.