What’s wrong with Kasey Kahne? It’s a question that has cropped up about the Hendrick Motorsports driver in the last couple of years, and it’s legitimate. Kahne has had fast cars — his teammates have poles, race wins, a rookie title and the 2016 championship in the same equipment. Kahne has 17 career wins, so it’s not as though he doesn’t know how to get to Victory Lane. Kahne has had terrible luck, but he’s not getting taken out of races every week. No driver in the Premier Series (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) completed more laps than Kahne did in 2016.
Yet in all those laps, Kahne never led a single one. That’s the most troubling statistic for Kahne — and the most perplexing. There isn’t anything to point to as a reason why, and that in turn means there isn’t anything to point to as a fix, either.
Kahne drives for Hendrick Motorsports, which puts him in some of the best racecars available in NASCAR, but which also puts him under deeper scrutiny than a driver running for a team not expected to win. Hendrick cars are fast, durable and have won on short tracks, intermediates and superspeedways and on ovals, road courses, flat tracks and banked tracks. Hendrick engines put out as much horsepower as any and often more, though durability may be a bit behind Earnhardt Childress engines (which are also a bit slower, so pick your poison). Kahne has the confidence of owner Rick Hendrick as well.
He’s also got the confidence of his sponsors. Kahne is as popular as he is talented, and backers love him. Farmers Insurance and Great Clips fill the meat of the schedule on the No. 5 car with several others filling the gaps, including LiftMaster, Quicken Loans, Panasonic, Mountain Dew, AARP and new-for-2017, UniFirst. He drives a variety of paint schemes because he represents companies well.
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Kahne enters his third year with crew chief Keith Rodden, who came on in 2015, replacing longtime head wrench Kenny Francis, with whom Kahne had 16 of his 17 career wins (the other was with Tommy Baldwin Jr.). Kahne and Rodden seem to communicate well during races, but their overall lack of results does raise a red flag. Rodden isn’t the sole cause of Kahne’s recent drought, but it’s hard to say he hasn’t played a role — though Kahne’s performance had somewhat stagnated before Rodden signed on. Still, the pairing bears watching, and if they can’t produce, a change may be needed.
One thing Kahne does right, week-in and week-out, is finish races. Only one driver (Landon Cassill for those keeping score at home) had fewer DNFs in 2016. Kahne failed to finish twice, and in both instances it was because he was collateral damage in a wreck. He doesn’t tear up cars and he doesn’t often make anyone angry over aggressive tactics. If the adage “to finish first, first you must finish” holds true, then Kahne is checking the right boxes on that count.
There’s no question that Kahne, who is signed with HMS through 2018, needs to perform better. His extension at the end of 2015 was a surprise to many, and he hasn’t done much to dispel questions of why Hendrick chose to keep Kahne in the car. If he doesn’t pick things up a bit this time around, though, his chances for another extension are slim, and as he’ll turn 37 this season, so will be his chances of landing with another elite team if that’s the case. Youngster William Byron, potential insurance for Dale Earnhardt Jr., could move to Kahne’s seat by 2019 after signing with JR Motorsports in the XFINITY Series.
But here’s the thing: As bad as Kahne’s luck has been and as puzzling as his performance has been, it’s hard to count him out of a Chase berth, if not a win. The driver is talented. The team is talented and has the best cars money can buy. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t win a few races, or at least run with a little more consistency.