There’s an old adage in racing that says, “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.” For Kasey Kahne, that motto perfectly sums up his most recent Sprint Cup campaign. Kahne was good, and he had fast cars, but the luck just wasn’t on his side. He failed to finish five races in 2014, all due to crash damage in which he was almost always an innocent victim.
That’s not to say this team didn’t make its own luck; the No. 5 group, even when at its best, never quite hit the standard Hendrick Motorsports is known for. Although Kahne squeezed into the Chase with an eleventh-hour win in Atlanta, he slogged through the postseason and never became a true contender.
But Kahne has several reasons to look forward to 2015. The driver received a real boost when his contract with Hendrick was extended through 2018, putting an end to speculation that young gun Chase Elliott, who won the 2014 Nationwide Series title, would supplant him after this season. The vote of confidence should take some pressure off Kahne and keep him focused on the task at hand.
That’s important, as the mild-mannered Kahne will have to lead his team through a major adjustment. Kenny Francis is out as crew chief, moving on within HMS and ending a nine-year pairing between the two. Of Kahne’s 17 career wins, 16 have come with Francis, leaving the future a bit of an unknown. In for Francis steps Keith Rodden, a former Hendrick engineer who returns to the organization after spending a year with Chip Ganassi Racing and driver Jamie McMurray. Rodden helped McMurray score seven top 5s and 13 top 10s, the driver’s best season totals since 2010. Rodden, used to working with a laid-back personality like Kahne, has the potential to be a perfect fit.
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Kahne’s best tracks are the high-speed intermediates that make up the bulk of the schedule, and the speed and durability of his HMS equipment is a combination that’s proven. Kahne hasn’t had a single engine failure since March 2012, and that is a testament to the driver, who can handle a car with finesse.
Kahne has strong backing for 2015, with primary sponsors Farmers Insurance and Great Clips back on board along with Time Warner Cable and Pepsi. LiftMaster also signed on for three races this season, and it’s likely that team owner Rick Hendrick will cover any unsold races with his HendrickCars.com brand.
There’s another weapon in Kahne’s arsenal, and it’s a powerful one — his Hendrick teammates. Hendrick Motorsports is known for maintaining an open-book policy among its four teams, and Jeff Gordon, with whom Kahne shares a race shop, had the best team overall in 2014’s regular season. The teamwork within the organization, which also includes Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., makes it easy for a driver to play catch-up. Kahne was top 5 in points as recently as 2012 with HMS, and his success on a particular Chase track in each round (Loudon, Charlotte, Phoenix) makes him a true dark horse.
Rodden returns Kahne’s team lost positions during green-flag pit cycles at a high rate. In ’13, then-crew chief Kenny Francis and engineer Keith Rodden gained Kahne 16 positions during such cycles. Without Rodden, who became Jamie McMurray’s crew chief, Francis cost Kahne 30 positions during cycles last year. In 2015, Rodden returns to replace Francis and should keep Kahne moving forward.
Best tracks Kahne was still competitive on his signature tracks last year. He won at Atlanta, finished third at Kansas and led 22 percent of the All-Star Race at Charlotte.
Sleeper pick Kahne’s best average finish per track type last year (9.0) was on road courses. Rodden’s car, with McMurray driving, won the pole and had the highest average running position at Sonoma.
No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Farmers Insurance, Great Clips, Time Warner Cable, LiftMaster, Pepsi
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Keith Rodden
Year With Current Team: 4th
Under Contract Through: 2018
Best Points Finish: 4th (2012)
Hometown: Enumclaw, Wash.
Born: April 10, 1980
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.