Kahne, Francis form winning combination
March 29, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Pairing has second-longest driver/crew chief relationship in garage
Spend much time watching the interaction between Hendrick Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne and his longtime crew chief Kenny Francis and it starts to feel like an old fashioned sitcom.
Except in this case, both stars are always playing the straight-man. And you keep waiting for a punch-line.
Take this exchange during the recent race weekend at California’s Auto Club Speedway.
Reporter: “Only Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus have worked together longer. Are you and Kasey at the point now that you complete each other’s sentences?’’
Francis: “Well, Kasey doesn’t really talk a lot.” Long pause. “Neither do I." Silence.
When Kahne is later told about this exchange, he leans back, smiles and says simply, “He’s right."
Never has silence been so golden; as in shiny trophy hardware. In the case of the powerhouse Hendrick team’s newest roster additions -- Kahne and Francis -- actions really do speak louder than words.
They have combined for 14 wins since pairing in 2006, and Kahne capped off his 2012 Hendrick debut with a career-best fourth-place showing in the Sprint Cup championship. And his No. 5 Chevrolet already notched a win four races into the 2013 season at Bristol.
The two have the longest current tenured combination in the Cup garage except for the five-time championship duo of Hendrick teammate Johnson and Knaus.
Unlike Johnson and Knaus, however, Kahne, 32, and Francis, 43, have been together through extreme tests of commitment, talent and resources from the heyday at Evernham Motorsports in the mid-2000s to the uncertainty of ownership changes, team financial difficulties and three different employers. They are the only current pairing to have worked with four manufacturers in the past half decade.
And yet, they have endured and succeeded at every turn no matter the situation.
“We’ve had some things thrown at us over the years and we’ve just always stuck together,’’ Kahne said. “At the end of each year we’ve talked and sometimes he’d be like, ‘Man, do you want me to still be your crew chief?’ We were just always kind of upfront with each other and it was easy to say that I didn’t want anybody else.
“For myself, I feel like he’s given me more opportunities to win in the situations we’ve been in than anybody else ever would have.’’
"We’ve had some things thrown at us over the years and we’ve just always stuck together."
-- Kasey Kahne
Francis is also bolstered by the loyalty and perhaps even a bit amazed at the accomplishments despite the trying times.
“Some of the down times were related to the business side of things, and that was hard to go through,’’ Francis said. “We always had good equipment and tried to be as focused as we could be, but when you’re talking about stuff like what’s going on financially with the company and guys are worried about their jobs, it just takes away.
“It doesn’t take much of a distraction in this business to hurt your performance. It’s subtle, but the competition is so close, you just can’t have that."
They both say the decision to stay together was easier than the circumstances they faced.
“Kasey needed to try something different so he said, ‘Let’s try to make this work together. If we can’t, then no hard feelings, but try to see what we can do together and give it an honest chance to see if we can improve how we’d been doing.’
“We had a couple Chase runs and had won a few races here and there, but we didn’t have the consistency we wanted. We always knew we wanted to try and stay together, but we didn’t know if it was going to work out. We just really didn’t know.
“The opportunity is definitely there with Hendrick Motorsports. We just want to take it to the next level.’’
It’s hard to imagine either without the other.
Ironically, for two guys that admittedly don’t like to talk much, they both insist communication has been the key to their relationship.
“It works for me because he’s a really good driver and really good at feeling what the car’s doing and understanding what he needs to do,’’ Francis explained. “He’s pretty good at communicating what he’s looking for and I think he understands a lot more about the cars than he did, say seven, eight years ago ...
“And he’s always been a really good driver, really fast."
Adds Kahne, “We’re just on the same page in how we communicate. Between that and work ethic -- Kenny’s nonstop trying to figure out how to make the race cars faster -- and I try to do everything I can to know about the car and also by physically and mentally being as prepared as I can be.’’
Both Kahne and Francis are normally soft-spoken and introspective -- contentedly more dash than flash -- but it belies a fiercely competitive spirit. Francis was an accomplished late model driver, and he brings that racer mentality to his skillset as a college-educated engineer.
“I’m a really serious person, I don’t do a lot of joking around and he’s a lot like me, pretty serious,’’ Francis said. “We’re both pretty intense."
That intensity is evident in their recent victory at Bristol, Kahne’s first at NASCAR’s famed half-mile bullring. Not only did Francis not celebrate beyond the required Victory Lane photo demands, but he also refuses to feel any more optimistic or overly confident about the next race or races on the schedule.
“I went home and went to bed," Francis said of the Bristol victory. “I purposely suppress it because you just never know. This next week could be terrible. You want to win every race, but you can’t expect to win every race. It’s just not realistic.
“So when you do win, it’s more relief. If you’re a good football team you can expect to win half or three-quarters of your events, where a good race team that has its best year, you’re lucky to win 15-20 percent. That would be an incredible year. You really have try to be more realistic, which is hard because you get more disappointed.
“The hardest part for me is to try to enjoy the good times without letting the negatives bring you back down.’’
Fortunately, there have been more good times than bad.
And certainly their success is a lesson in listening more and talking less.
“I think because we have a really good relationship, understand each other and have a lot of respect for each other and our work ethic, and I know how he goes about things, I enjoy working with him -- and to have that long relationship is good,’’ Kahne said.
“It hasn’t gotten old or even times when you’ve felt like change might be better.
“I think it’s nice because of where we’re at now and how we worked together to get to this point together on a lot of different levels. Nice to be here now and be with Hendrick Motorsports and have a chance to win championships.”
While Kahne and Francis may not have staged a huge celebration after the Bristol victory, Kahne did something a bit uncharacteristic in the wake of his big win. While in California, he posted a photo on Twitter showing his left biceps with a fresh tattoo of his grandfather's initials -- a bold move for sure.
“I don’t know if Kenny even knows about it," Kahne said jokingly.
“And no, he will not be getting a tattoo."
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