Kasey Kahne’s 300th career start could also turn out to be his most memorable. A dozen starts into his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports blossomed into a trip to Victory Lane, a third career Coca-Cola 600 victory at the type of intermediate oval he thrives on. Suddenly, in the midst of a wide-open NASCAR season, the once-invisible No. 5 car has been thrust right back into Chase contention.
Chase? You’d be chasing someone out of the room if they played that type of fortuneteller card two months ago. For a driver who had to wait nearly two years for his slot in the No. 5 car, paired with Hendrick’s Yankee-like expectations, Kahne’s start to 2012 was the nightmare that kept on giving. Whether it was wrecks, mechanical failures, poor pit stops, or awful-handling race cars, the perfect storm of bad was threatening to turn him into one of the bigger free-agent busts in NASCAR history. Check out the first six finishes on paper: 29th, 34th, 19th, 37th, 14th, and 38th. That left Kahne 31st in the standings, but with the top-tier equipment being provided, that might as well have been 71st.
“Rotten luck,” Hendrick claimed as the culprit, speaking freely Sunday night after seeing this slump officially put to rest. “We lost the motor [at Martinsville]. I don’t think I’ve blown a motor there in 20 years. At Vegas, last lap, he was third or fourth, Matt [Kenseth] crowds him into the fence. Daytona, run all day, we get swept up in a wreck running top 10…”
The list was long on variety, short on success, disasters that could have destroyed many a superstar’s self-esteem. But the quiet, soft-spoken Kahne, once knocked for not showing enough leadership in former rides, refused to let panic or emotions get the better of him. (The most outward braggadocio he showed was on Tuesday, during a 200th victory celebration for Hendrick Motorsports where the car owner half-coaxed Kahne to “guarantee” a win in the 600). Yes, the team was new but the hidden key to the driver’s success has been loyalty, a small group of close friends and confidantes that also double as his long-term crew.
“There’s about 4, 5, 6 other guys that whatever [choices were made], we all stuck together,” said Kahne about a decade-long journey that’s seen him drive for every one of the four manufacturers competing on the NASCAR circuit. “And because we all stuck together, we knew we would perform really well everywhere we went. Maybe things didn’t work out perfect at times, but we’ve been able to win races and enjoy what we did. We’ve always worked hard to get more.”
That effort never wavered in times of crisis, combined with some cheerleading from others: teammate Jimmie Johnson sent encouraging text messages while owner Rick Hendrick gently reassured his new hire. But the long-term familiarity of those “old school” connections, in particular Francis, kept the crisis to a minimum while allowing the driver to hold his confidence high.
“I got pretty down a couple of times,” Kahne explained, “And Kenny said, ‘We’ve got more fast cars. We’ll be fine.’ He definitely wasn’t fine with the way the season went, but he knew we had speed, he knew we were trying hard, and it just hadn’t worked out to that point. Kenny and I have got along great for five years, and to be able to read each other… he understands how I get every once in awhile, and we make it through.”
Bounce back they have, with flying colors: runs of 7th, 8th, 5th, 4th, 8th, and now 1st have Kahne one of the hottest drivers in all of racing. Patience and persistence have combined with some luck balancing out; even Sunday night, Kahne’s race came within inches of crumbling during a midrace stop. He and the No. 99 crossed paths, forced to put on the brakes with Kahne leaving just as his rival was coming in. A few months ago, that incident would have caused a crumpled fender, a 20th-place finish in waiting. Now? It’s just a small blip on the radar screen in his cruise to victory.
Certainly, it helped that the No. 5 car flashed speed throughout this process. During the first six races, they started in the top 10 five times and won two poles. It just became a process, painful as it was of relearning how to turn one lap’s worth of success into, say, 400.
“I think the biggest thing for myself was just to figure out the cars and figure out how they drove,” said Kahne. “It’s been a little bit different for me. I just knew for myself, I needed to step up. Our team is solid. Our cars are solid. Mr. Hendrick gives us everything we need to win races and to run up front. Tonight, we were able to put one on ’em and have a car that was perfect throughout the last 200 laps.”
“I felt all along that when the luck would turn, these guys would win races,” added Hendrick. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that if you have speed, you’re going to win.”
The comeback is astounding on paper, considering just six races ago this car was on the brink of falling outside the top 35 in owner points. Despite this victory, Kahne still remains 42 points behind Carl Edwards for 10th, in a position where it may take a second, if not a third victory, to earn a “wild card” bid into the postseason. But a once-unthinkable door to the playoffs has at least been propped open; it’s now up to the team how they handle this momentum going forward.
“We’re just going to stay after consistency,” Kahne explained. “We’ve just moved up in the points each week, so we’re going to stay after that. If we keep hitting on things like we have been, to me Hendrick Motorsports has been as strong as anyone… we’re going to try to get more wins. If that’s the way we get in, that’s great. If we race into the top 10, that’s awesome too.”
And with that, shortly after Kahne stepped off the podium with a smile, ear-to-ear. Finally, the last two seasons that included an early departure from his former team, RPM, concerns about getting paid, then a one-year stint with a Red Bull organization that isn’t even around anymore were pushed into the rear-view mirror. As his longtime PR girl joyfully stated, in the midst of congratulations, it was the happiest her driver had been in years.
What a rollercoaster ride to redemption it was to get there. But with the bright future that potentially lies ahead – it’s clear Kahne has no regrets.