Race Weekend Central

Kasey Kahne … The Most Underrated Driver In NASCAR?

I guarantee that if you go on any website that covers the sport of NASCAR—including this one—you’ll see at least one column about how Kenseth’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing was the greatest thing he ever did and that Kansas solidified his dominance and blah, blah, blah…

More focused than ever, 2013 may be the season Kasey Kahne quietly breaks through to the top in Sprint Cup.

It’s relevant, no doubt, but what everyone is missing is the second place driver: Kasey Kahne. However, that’s nothing new for the Washington native, who tends to fly under the radar as it is. He’s been in the sport for a while now and has won several races, yet you almost never hear “Kasey Kahne” amongst the weekly favorites to win when all the so-called analysts are making their picks. I’m even guilty of this fact.

Yet almost every weekend in 2013, he’s been there, right up front or near it, as a legitimate contender. Kahne’s had a top-5 finish in half the races run in 2013 and has only finished worse than 11th twice. Yet even after his victory in Bristol, there wasn’t much discussion as to the Washington native’s potential to contend for this year’s championship. He was just simply there, losing attention to more hot headed and colorful drivers.

One person who certainly noticed Kahne this weekend, though, was Matt Kenseth. At first it looked like Kenseth was going to run away with the race, after showing a significant amount of speed in both practice sessions and winning the pole. He followed all that up by leading 163 of the 267 laps.

What surprised everyone, though, was how quickly Kahne caught up with Kenseth. Though he hadn’t been a factor all day, and never even led a lap, he was the only one who was able to run with the No. 20 car with just a handful of laps remaining. Even teammate Jimmie Johnson was having a difficult time keeping up.

It was, in a way, a testament to the team’s ability to improve over the course of a 400-mile event.

“As the race went on, we made some good adjustments,” said Kahne. “We made our way up to the front. It was a good race for us. We were very close at the end battling with Matt … It was tough, but we still had a great race.”

Sunday wasn’t a fluke for this veteran, either. His impressive finishes in eight races in 2013 has elevated him to second in the standings, and he sits only 37 points behind teammate Jimmie Johnson. That’s ahead of last year’s champion Brad Keselowski and both his other teammates, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

So why does Kahne still continue to fly under the radar, even as he proves his status as a legitimate championship contender?

I would gather that, perhaps, Kahne is a victim of the star power around him. Think back to when Kahne made the announcement he was going to be racing for Hendrick Motorsports. There were two reactions: “That’s a great opportunity for him” and “Gosh, he’d better take advantage of it.” Though it’s hard to believe he only started racing for HMS last season, his tenure with the team has been nothing short of successful. In 43 races with the No. 5 car, Kahne has acquired three wins, 14 top 5s, and 24 top 10s. He finished fourth in the points last year and is second even now.

The only reason, I believe, that it’s not quite as noticeable is that he is the teammate of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. All are more colorful, loved by the fans, and maybe even a tad better “media savvy” than Kahne. Johnson’s attempt at a sixth title is an interest across the sport; Jeff Gordon’s struggle to regain past dominance has been a running theme for a while now; and Dale Jr. is, well, Dale Jr.

In other words, when people look at Kahne, they see Hendrick Motorsports. When we look at Hendrick Motorsports, I think most of us have the “Oh, something shiny!” reaction and immediately start taking that angle instead.

The conversation goes something like this one:

“Hey did you see Kasey Kahne finished second in that race?”

“Yeah, and Jimmie Johnson finished third.”

“Oh, yeah, Johnson you know I really think he’s on par for a sixth title this year.”

Kahne is very overshadow-able. The reason he shined so brightly with Richard Petty Motorsports was because he was arguably the best driver there. He was the most popular, could kick some serious butt, and was arguably just as good as he is now.

Honestly, this phenomenon probably would have happened had Kahne gone to any of the top teams in the sport. Had he been paired with Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin, it would have been the same story for obvious reasons. Same with Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Kahne, very simply, blends in.

I’ve been guilty of the same thing. While considering the championship implications, both in 2013 and beyond, for a variety of drivers, I completely blew off Kahne as ever winning a championship. I didn’t believe he’d ever be able to contend with the Jimmie Johnsons and Jeff Gordons of his time, and that drivers like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin would be heads and shoulders above where he is now.

The thing about Kahne’s quiet disposition is that he’s also patient—something those two have shown problems with even recently. In fact, after analyzing the pace he’s on at this point, Kahne very well might be a champion before Busch, Hamlin, and maybe even a guy like Carl Edwards.

There is something to be said about having great equipment behind you, but very little pressure. The assumption I had when Kahne went over to HMS was that his every move would be scrutinized because of the pressure to perform. However, it was anything but. Even as he succeeded and finished in the top 5, time after time, no one really seemed to notice him at all. It wasn’t because he was expected to perform, either. It was simply because there were bigger and better stories going on at the time and he just didn’t make the cut.

I don’t imagine it will always be this way for Kahne. He’s always getting better and, in my opinion, is poised for a breakout year. After all, it’s hard to ignore the guy in second place if he’s still right there in Homestead. The guy may not throw a fit like some drivers, or spout off one-liners like an amateur comedian, but he’s there when it counts week in and week out.

I’m going to call this now, and all of you can hold me accountable at season’s end. Kahne will win at least three more races this year and finish top five in points.

Oh, and no one will notice.

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