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Previews, predictions and stats for Kasey Kahne and the No. 5 team
Does anyone have the feeling that 32-year-old Kasey Kahne is just getting started? After a disastrous start to 2012, his Hendrick Motorsports debut included a rally from 31st in driver points after six races to a surprising fourth by season’s end. Although he led only 29 laps in the postseason, his Jimmie Johnson-like consistency served notice that he was on the upswing with a No. 5 car that, the year prior, struggled to even crack the top 20.
HMS certainly provides the best opportunity Kahne has had to showcase his talent. Having bounced around from Gillett Evernham Motorsports — which merged with Richard Petty Motorsports after going bankrupt — to a one-year filler campaign with Red Bull Racing, Kahne is seemingly the all-star talent who has wasted prime years of his career with unstable organizations. Hendrick Motorsports changes that. A team whose equipment has won six of the last seven Sprint Cup titles, HMS allows Kahne to not only score top 10s but also win on any given weekend.
While the nameplates may have been in a perpetual state of change for Kahne over the course of his career, the one constant — since 2006, anyway — has been crew chief Kenny Francis. The former Late Model driver was part of Dale Jarrett’s championship team in 1999, and after moving to Ray Evernham’s fleet, led Jeremy Mayfield to consecutive Chase berths before joining Kahne’s team in ’06. Kahne’s immense faith in Francis is justified. Thirteen of his 14 Cup wins have come with the Florida native on the pit box. Francis brought fresh blood to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, and all four teams were quick to praise the engineering prowess he provided.
Team owner Rick Hendrick is used to success on the racetrack, and to that end, he takes pride in the way his operation is run at the shop, with a complete open book among his four teams as well as information sharing with the satellite organization of Stewart-Haas Racing. The lack of secrets among teams helped HMS put four cars in the Chase in 2012, including two in the top four in final points. Last season all but proved that Kahne has been better than his equipment for much of his career (if there was any doubt).
The quality support around him should continue in 2013, along with the cash. Primary sponsor Farmers Insurance returns to Kahne’s car for 22 races. Quaker State will be on the hood for four; Time Warner Cable comes on board for an additional four; and longtime backer Great Clips has stepped up to fund Kahne in three events. Money won’t be an issue this year, and that’s becoming a rarity, even among racing’s elite teams.
For the popular Kahne, it appears that all pieces to the puzzle are in place as the season begins. What stands in the way of a title? It’s the one variable that can’t be controlled by a wrench, a wallet or a wheelman’s talent: experience. Perhaps the biggest threat to a title bid comes from across the campus on Papa Joe Boulevard in the form of five-time champion Johnson, who has the same equipment, plus a wealth of Chase knowledge that Kahne lacks. There have been whispers within the garage that when the No. 48 is top dog down the stretch of the Chase, it’s going to get the “nod” internally over any teammates — the quest for a record eight titles overriding a drive for one.
Kahne, who excels on the intermediate tracks, also needs more than just the cookie-cutter wins in his arsenal. At the three one-mile ovals in NASCAR’s postseason (Dover, Loudon, Phoenix), he has a combined two wins but only seven top-5 finishes in 53 career races. And at Martinsville, he has a mediocre 20.7-place average finish. Versatility, the mark of any champion, could be what pushes him over the top.
That said, would it be a surprise if Kahne were to hoist the Cup when the smoke clears in South Florida? Not really. He’s talented enough to do so, as is the team. The question that will be on the table is whether Kahne can lead laps early in the Chase, establish an edge over Johnson, Brad Keselowski, et al, and hold up the consistency in the face of potential challengers. If he can, a championship isn’t out of reach.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Perseverance was key to Kasey Kahne’s first season with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.
“Kahne and that team made a lot of progress from the start of last season to the finish,” one crew chief notes. “They had a lot of good runs that were marred by some bad luck (early). That they ended up earning a Chase berth thanks to the wild card and figuring out the Hendrick mentality was a big step for Kasey and Kenny (Francis, crew chief). They persevered through the bad luck early in the year and were strong at the end.”
Another rival warns not to overlook Kahne away from the cookie-cutter tracks where he has enjoyed so much success.
“Kasey has won at multiple style tracks, so he is more than just an intermediate driver. You have to be able to compete at every track on the schedule to be a title contender, and Kasey has shown that he’s versatile enough to do that. He does well most everywhere we go. We always look for him on the lap tracker after practice to see where Kasey is to gauge our team against him. One thing is for certain: He always has a lot of speed.”
Looking at Checkers: Charlotte continues to be his go-to track. Kahne has four points-paying wins (including three 600s) as well as an All-Star triumph in 2008.
Pretty Solid Pick: His acumen on the cookie cutters fits well with Hendrick’s engineering expertise.
Good Sleeper Pick: Doesn’t have a win at either, but his average finish on the squared-off ovals in Homestead and Indianapolis are in the seventh- to ninth-place range.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: A total of 36 points-paying starts on the plate tracks, but zero wins and only five top 5s.
Insider Tip: Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis are just hitting their collective peak. Finally in a healthy environment, they’re a perennial top-5 combo.
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