Consistency could help Kahne make the leap
February 10, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
After season upon season of massive overhaul -- a revolving door of teams and car makes -- Kasey Kahne considers it a luxury to at last say his team's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship hopes rest on just a little fine-tuning.
"Myself and (crew chief) Kenny (Francis) are working on small things to get better," Kahne said. "I know the speed is going to be in the cars. Last year I feel like the first half of the year we were as fast as anybody if not the fastest in a lot of races, but we didn't put a whole season together -- I didn't, the team didn't."
Kahne's final championship ranking, 12th among 13 Chase drivers, doesn't properly reflect the effort -- or multiple near-wins.
A crash in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup's second race at New Hampshire essentially ended Kahne's shot to challenge for the trophy. But after having an offseason to dissect and digest the team's situation, Kahne said he's mostly optimistic about the new year for many reasons -- primarily for all the shoulda-coulda that characterized his 2013.
"I go into each season feeling it's going to be the best one, but this one definitely could be," said Kahne, driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Farmer's Insurance Chevrolet.
Kahne said for the first time in "as long as I can remember," he will have the same team, manufacturer and generation of car for two consecutive seasons. And plenty to build on.
Lost in last year's Chase disappointment is a record of running up front that's nearly as impressive as the top two title contenders: 2013 champ Jimmie Johnson and runner-up Matt Kenseth, who won six and seven races, respectively.
Kahne's two 2013 victories (Bristol and Pocono) secured his fifth multi-win season in 10 years at the Cup level, and he also had more runner-up finishes (six) than any other driver last year.
And beyond that, his three official DNFs came with him running up front. He crashed at the spring Talladega race while battling for second place. He was leading at the first Michigan race when a tire problem put his Chevy into the wall. And he was dicing with teammate Johnson for the win in Daytona's July race when Marcos Ambrose triggered a wreck among the three with four laps remaining.
"I didn't really think about it until after the season, but we were pretty close to having a career year," Francis said. "If you look at all the close second-places and a number of times we crashed out while in the lead.
"We came away disappointed with how we ended up in the Chase ... that left a kind of disappointing feel to the year, but overall if you really think about it, we had a lot of really good runs and were pretty close to winning a lot of races."
And with NASCAR's new championship format -- a victory automatically places a driver in the 16-spot Chase elimination round -- winning has never meant more.
Hendrick Motorsports got a big boost this week when former champion crew chief Ray Evernham announced he was leaving the ESPN broadcast booth for a managerial position in the team's competition department. That could be especially helpful for Kahne, considering the long and healthy relationship between the two.
Kahne won the 2004 Rookie of the Year honors driving for Evernham's Dodge team.
Listening to Kahne talk about his expectations for 2014, he sounded as motivated and upbeat as if he were coming off a championship season. And that's no accident.
The fine-tuning isn't just about the car. Kahne has been using another valuable resource at Hendrick Motorsports during the offseason -- sports psychologist Dr. Jack Stark.
"I've had people talk to me a long time about doing something like that, and I always kinda pushed it away," Kahne said. "This offseason I decided to look into some things so I tracked him down and I've been working with him ever since. I feel really good about it, and I feel like he's a great guy. It can't hurt at the end of the day. I got to that point, I felt like I needed to make gains personally. As far as physically, driving the cars, understanding the race cars, things like that, I didn't think that was the spot I needed to work on as much as some other areas.
"So I looked into it and tracked him down. When I'm not performing, I look at myself first and then go from there. I need to do a better job of being motivated throughout the year, the entire season -- not getting down when things happen you can't control, or mistakes you make, come back stronger the next week. If I do that I think I'll have a much better season than I had last year."
And that may be all it takes to elevate Kahne from perennial championship aspirant to title contender.