What Kasey Kahne needs most heading into the 2014 NASCAR season is a little luck. He couldn’t seem to find much of it in 2013 and, as a result, finished a distant 12th in the Chase standings. Entering the season among the title favorites, Kahne instead was caught in a tale of two extremes. When things were going right, he climbed as high as second in points, collecting trophies at both Bristol and Pocono along the way. But when they weren’t, the field blew by, including teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. That duo put together outstanding Chase runs to cap off the season while Kahne faltered down the stretch. Three finishes of 27th or lower in the final 10 races sealed the driver’s fate; he was out of the championship picture by early October.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that a lot of the problems weren’t Kahne’s fault. He actually led more laps in 2013 than in his first year with Hendrick, when Kahne finished a solid fourth — and closing — in the standings. But the normally even-keeled driver seemed off-kilter by the end of last season. A bizarre post-wreck interview at Loudon had some observers thinking concussion; three earlier wrecks at plate races, two at the hands of Kyle Busch, portrayed an image of a “nice guy” getting borderline bullied. Even a second-place run at Bristol in August, where he failed to “bump ’n’ run” for the win with Matt Kenseth — another driver who had wronged him, at Watkins Glen — fueled whispers that the driver wouldn’t ever fight back when it came to on-track contact.
No matter what side of that debate you fall on, there’s no arguing that Kahne’s average finish of 16.2 was his lowest since 2010. He finished outside the top 25 10 times in 2013 — more than a quarter of the season and double the number of “bad” races teammate Johnson had on his way to the title. Kahne also failed to win a pole for the first time in four years. But, for all that, he failed to finish only three races. That’s a testament to the determination of the No. 5 bunch.
Heading into 2014, Kahne’s team remains both stable and resilient. Kenny Francis returns as crew chief, an excellent leader who communicates well with his driver. Kahne and Francis have been together since 2006, transitioning through multiple teams and ownership crises to be the longest-tenured head wrench-driver combo behind Johnson and Chad Knaus. Francis handles Kahne well while bringing an assortment of knowledge and creativity that keeps this team on top of NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis.
The other baseline pieces are in place. Hendrick equipment has won seven of the last eight Cup titles, and Kahne is coming to the track every week in the best stuff money can buy. Sponsorship is also never a problem. Farmers Insurance will foot most of the bill this year, along with Time Warner Cable, Great Clips and Pepsi. Kahne represents them well (he’s been a good sport in making some fairly outrageous commercials over the years) and is popular with fans. The result is solid backing that’s mutually beneficial.
Perhaps the biggest advantage Kahne has in driving for Hendrick, though, is the way the organization is run. All four teams have an “open-book” policy, pulling information from one another and working in tandem to achieve great success. Kahne shares shop space with four-time champion Jeff Gordon, a decent match as the veteran schools the youngster on improving. Team owner Rick Hendrick has long said that the secret to the team’s success is its people, putting Kahne in position for a breakthrough.
That leaves the key for 2014 as consistency — and courage. Staying out of trouble can be out of one’s control, but good racers also maximize their opportunities. Even with all his strength on intermediate ovals, which make up half the Chase, Kahne was the bridesmaid at 1.5-mile ovals four times in 2013. Second place, without the bonus points for winning, truly makes you the first loser under the Chase format. The Washington campaigner, overshadowed by his more successful teammates, has to find a way to get over the hump.
On paper, Kahne has the talent to win a Cup championship. He has the equipment and the team that can take him there. But until Lady Luck shines bright once again, what you’ll get is a lower-first-tier driver still trying to believe it.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He drives for Hendrick Motorsports, and there isn’t a greater advantage in the sport than driving for the best team in the sport,” says a crew chief from across the garage. “When Kahne has it going on a mile-and-a-half track, he’s among the best in the sport. If he can become more consistent on the intermediate tracks, he could make a run at a title. … He’s also very versatile — running on dirt and asphalt in other vehicles. That versatility helps give him the ability to handle cars that are less than perfect, although he can’t seem to overcome all of his car’s ails.”
Another crew chief agrees that consistency on the intermediates can be an issue with Kahne: “While Kahne can be good on mile-and-a-half tracks, he can also stink. He needs to learn how to find a happier medium when his car isn’t win-worthy. When the other drivers at Hendrick are looking consistently strong, the pressure can mount if Kahne isn’t running as well. How he handles that pressure can determine his success.”
“This sounds strange, but he’s almost the forgotten man at Hendrick,” says a member of the media. “I’m not sure that even more wins or a title can fix that.”
Looking at Checkers: Don’t pigeonhole Kahne as simply an intermediate-track master, as his finishes of first and second at Bristol last season suggest otherwise.
Pretty Solid Pick: Charlotte, where he’s garnered four points-paying wins and a victory in the ’08 All-Star Race.
Good Sleeper Pick: He’s feast or famine at Pocono, with two wins offset by four showings of 27th or worse in the CoT/Gen-6 era.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not the first driver you think of when the series hits the plate tracks. And with pretty good reason.
Insider Tip: Is he ready to make a play for the title? Entering the prime of his career, Kahne saw his numbers regress in 2013 from 2012. We wonder if that would have been the case were his team housed in the No. 48’s building.
No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsors: Farmers Insurance/Great Clips/Time Warner/Pepsi
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Kenny Francis
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 4th (2012)
Hometown: Enumclaw, Wash.
Born: April 10, 1980
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro