News & Media


Kahne stays strong even as his time draws short

October 10, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- For Kasey Kahne, the past year has been a ride wilder than anything he's taken in a race car. Next week marks the anniversary of a falling-out with Richard Petty Motorsports that led to his move to Red Bull, where he remained for this season. In a few weeks he'll begin another transition, this one into the No. 5 car at Hendrick Motorsports, his third team in 13 months.

It all promises to be his last move for some time, given Kahne's relative youth and the history of the Hendrick organization. And it makes you wonder what he might be capable of given a little stability, especially since he's able to turn out results like Sunday's season-best second-place finish at Kansas Speedway despite the short time he has remaining with a team that faces an uncertain future.

"There's a lot of people there working really hard and unsure about maybe their future and where they're going to work next year, and they're still putting everything they have into our race cars each week. That's pretty awesome on their part."

--KASEY KAHNE

"I feel like at times when things are going smoothly, and we're making the right decision [and] communicating the right way between our group, we're capable of winning races," Kahne said after finishing as runner-up behind future teammate Jimmie Johnson. "Hopefully, we'll have more of that as the future goes on. I think I've learned a lot over the years, so hopefully next year and the next few years after that we'll be in a better spot than I've been."

Where he was Sunday wasn't bad: right behind Johnson in a green-white-checkered finish, and with four fresh tires as opposed to the leader's two. But Johnson got off quickly on the final restart, and Kahne spun the tires trying to be aggressive, and the No. 48 car nosed out front for good. Even so, it was a second consecutive top-five finish for a Red Bull program getting more consistent as the year goes on -- that's four top-15s in a row now, the team's best stretch since the opening weeks of the season -- just as Kahne's tenure with the outfit draws nearer to a close.

"The guys never stopped working on the stuff," said crew chief Kenny Francis, who will accompany his driver to Hendrick next season. "We took a new car to Phoenix to test, that's kind of our last new one for the year. They've been working hard. We're still making updates. We're going to take updates to Charlotte and the rest of them. We're still making improvements. It's a struggle, you know. It's tough."

It's tough because Red Bull is pulling out of the ownership game after this season, leaving management of the two-car team scrambling to find an ownership group and a sponsorship package to keep it afloat. Two weeks ago, in accordance with the law, the team notified the state of North Carolina of potential layoffs. Runs like Kahne's on Sunday are rays of sunshine for a team facing a very cloudy future.

"The biggest thing to me would be to leave on a good note," said Kahne, who at 31 will be the youngest Hendrick driver next year. "There's a lot of people there working really hard and unsure about maybe their future and where they're going to work next year, and they're still putting everything they have into our race cars each week. That's pretty awesome on their part. Kenny Francis and [team engineer] Keith Rodden, they're always looking to make the car just a little bit better, how can I do this, how can I do that. So we're always working together trying to do that. I'm fortunate to go with him next year, so we're working on things for next year as well as just trying to finish strong this year."

Sunday brought perhaps Kahne's best shot at a victory with Red Bull, and best chance at his first win anywhere since prevailing at Atlanta in 2009 in an RPM car. Kahne and Johnson restarted side-by-side, but the five-time champion was just too much. Johnson led 197 laps, and Kahne knew he was beaten once Johnson outran him to the first corner. How much of a chance did Francis think they had approaching the green-white-checkered?

"I didn't," the crew chief said. "I thought if maybe something crazy happened on the restart, if we could get beside him on the restart going into the first corner. But behind, I didn't really think we had much of a chance. He was so dominant all day. Even when he was on two [tires] and everybody else was on four, he would just be a little bit better. It was a long shot."

Even though Kahne and Francis have six races left with Red Bull, and have goals still remaining on the table -- "We're shooting to win multiple races before the end of the year," Francis said -- their future at Hendrick always looms ahead of them. Kahne will slide into the No. 5 car for the first time the Monday after the Charlotte race for a fuel-injection test. Francis is getting better acquainted with the Hendrick crew chiefs. And in a matter of weeks, both men will see their long year of constant change finally come to an end.

"Hopefully, it will be a good combination," Francis said. "It's going to be a different deal. You still worry about how you fit in, how it all kind of works. I seem to have a good relationship with a lot of those crew chiefs, really everyone over there. I think all that would be good. Even in years past, I've always talked to Chad [Knaus], I've always talked to Stevie [Letarte]. I've gotten to know Alan [Gustafson] here a little more lately, and Lance [McGrew], even. I think it will be good. You always worry that things are so different, their systems are different, they operate in a different manner than I'm used to, there's some organizational and structural differences in how they do things that will take some time to adjust to. Hopefully, I'll be able to adjust to them over the winter."