Kasey Kahne's U-turn saved Sprint Cup season
Enumclaw driver Kasey Kahne is avoiding mistakes and living up to expectations with Hendrick Motorsports.
Seattle Times staff
What was supposed to be a watershed season for Enumclaw's Kasey Kahne looked more like a washout six weeks into the season.
In his first year with Hendrick Motorsports, which holds a record 10 Sprint Cup owners championships, expectations couldn't have been much higher. Team owner Rick Hendrick said in January that he expected Kahne and teammates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson to all qualify for the postseason Chase.
But at the beginning of April, the results were dismal for Kahne, the 2004 Rookie of the Year who grew up helping his dad work on cars at Skagit Speedway in Burlington.
Kahne couldn't manage a finish better than 14th and found himself in 31st place after six races, four spots above the cut-off for a guaranteed spot.
But the ever-optimistic Kahne didn't panic and shot back up the rankings, climbing to 12th in the Cup standings entering Sunday's Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis.
"That's part of learning and going to a new team," Kahne, 32, said in a telephone interview from Charlotte, N.C. "You never know how it's going to start right at the beginning, you've just got to stay after it, and that's what we did."
For some, falling so short of an owner's expectations could bring suffocating pressure. But to Kahne, Hendrick's challenge sounded more like encouragement.
"That just actually gave me a lot of confidence, knowing that, man, it's all right in front of us," Kahne said. "We've just got to use it and make it go around the track fast."
That's exactly what happened when Kahne and his team were able to avoid mistakes and crashes. He put together a string of eight top-10 finishes starting April 17 at Texas, including his first win of the season at Charlotte on May 27.
It took time to bring together ideas from Kahne's team, led by crew chief Kenny Francis, with the new system and cars at Hendrick.
"All in all, we knew the cars were really fast and we had a good thing coming together," Francis said by email. "It's just a matter of getting all the gears meshing. We kind of started doing a lot better here lately."
Being surrounded by veterans with so much success didn't hurt, either. One of the biggest draws to Hendrick for Kahne was the ability to draw off that experience every week.
"It's like a puzzle where you can keep taking little things each week and hopefully as long as you're taking them from the right spot, you can progress and get better each week," he said. "One of the biggest things I looked forward to at Hendrick Motorsports was having that opportunity to listen to them and work with them on certain things and figure a little bit out here and there, and hopefully it makes us stronger."
Now, coming off a win at Loudon, he looks toward a more personal goal this weekend: winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He remembers watching the first Brickyard 400 as a 14-year-old in Washington, in his first year racing mini-sprints (coincidentally, the winner that year was his future teammate, Gordon).
"I still think it's an exciting place as soon as you come in there and to be a part of the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Kahne said. "Just to have a shot to be in victory lane there is something I look forward to every year."
And while it'd certainly be a big moment and another big boost toward his first Chase berth since 2009, Kahne says every achievement is a bonus. After all, he's earning a living doing what he's wanted to since hanging out in Skagit garages as a kid.
"It's nice to be able to do what you love each day, you know?" he said. "It's not real normal to do that all the time. So it's great to be in that position and to do what I love every single day."
Joel Petterson: firstname.lastname@example.org