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From the Notebook: Kahne singing praise of Francis at Hendrick

February 17, 2012, Dave Rodman,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- From the Notebook: Almirola feels like a rookie; Cup stars hit the dirt tracks

Kasey Kahne is obviously the face of the newest team restructuring at Hendrick Motorsports, the famous No. 5 Chevrolet that was owner Rick Hendrick's first Cup Series entry back in 1984.

But with Kahne expected to make an immediate impact -- he's already forecast as a sure race winner and probable qualifier for his third Chase for the Sprint Cup berth in his nine-year career -- he knows what the most critical piece of his puzzle for success is.

Sense of belonging

After working for a plethora of teams, Kenny Francis says he and Kasey Kahne feel like they have a permanent home at Hendrick Motorsports.

Kahne says no question it's crew chief Kenny Francis, who'll start his seventh season as Kahne's team leader. Kahne cited Francis' experience as a high-quality late model driver, his measured insight and the respect he has in the garage, as reasons.

"He's just a thinker," Kahne said. "He's just spot-on with a lot of things. He just thinks about it for a long time and really looks into it and figures it out before he talks about it or before he tries it.

"He brings a lot to the table, so it's neat to see how much Hendrick Motorsports welcomed Kenny to the organization and how much he thinks of those guys as well. It's been a great position that we've been in, this offseason."

The most imperceptible change to the team's structure is its listed owner. Hendrick's mother, Mary, was listed as the car's owner since her husband, "Papa Joe" Hendrick, died in 2004. Rick Hendrick's wife Linda now holds that title.

Hendrick's unique ownership structure -- four-time champion Jeff Gordon is the listed owner of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson's car -- is only one aspect of the organization Kahne and Francis have found to be different. But they both feel they can thrive in that environment, and Kahne said Francis' singular ways are one of his advantages.

"Yeah, and that's just something he has come up with over the years," Kahne said. "He raced, so how he looks at stuff [is] maybe a little different. But he has been with a lot of different teams, so he has had to figure those things out -- why this works here but it didn't work there.

"He's had the opportunity to experience a lot of change and some of those other guys haven't. I have, too, and I think sometimes that can help in certain situations. I think he's just a really good fit for Kenny to go over [to Hendrick] and work with the guys there."

Kahne's beginning with Francis was a little contentious. After making the first two Chases with driver Jeremy Mayfield, owner Ray Evernham placed Francis with Kahne to start the 2006 season. They've worked together at Evernham Motorsports, which in turn became Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and then Richard Petty Motorsports. They segued to the Red Bull Racing Team for one year after making the deal to come to HMS.

So in that time, Kahne unquestionably knows how important Francis is to his and his team's success.

"I think the crew chief spot is really important," Kahne said. "We talk, we communicate and that's how the car gets set up is kind of through that communication. The engineer is really important; I've had the same engineer [Keith Rodden] with Kenny. We have a few other guys -- our car chief -- we have four guys total that have been together for about six years now and all that stuff really does help."

Almirola trucking into Cup Series

Aric Almirola has never run more than 12 Cup Series races in a season, and he ran none a year ago when he competed in the Nationwide Series. But Almirola does have title-contending experience, in 2010 when he raced for Billy Ballew Motorsports in the Truck Series, won twice and finished second in the championship.

"I'm still a rookie," said Almirola, who is not eligible for the rookie of the award. "I'm going to make rookie mistakes. I would like to limit those, and I think that all the experience I have from running the Truck Series in 2010 and winning some races there and running for a championship -- we came up a little bit short but we finished second in the points.

"I think that experience, coupled with racing last year for a championship with JR Motorsports on the Nationwide side, those last two years have been big for me as far as building as a race-car driver and building my car. So I really look forward to this year and I can feel like going into this season that the possibility is there to go out and kind of have a breakout year in the Sprint Cup Series."

Dirt Racing is a party

Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway is more than racing. It's a festival of speed that kicks off the season for a bunch of racers -- both fans and industry employees -- who have gone stir-crazy through the relatively quiet winter months.

On-track action for NASCAR doesn't start until Friday, but that didn't stop plenty of the circuit's regulars to get head starts. Defending Cup Series champion Tony Stewart and fellow Cup racer and former World of Outlaws champion Dave Blaney ran All Star Circuit of Champions sprint cars at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla., on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Kahne and Stewart own multi-car Outlaws teams that were racing at Volusia and, according to Twitter Johnson and Cup and Nationwide series racer J.J. Yeley -- who like Stewart, Blaney and Kahne has an open-wheel heritage -- were visitors.

In the UMP Modified ranks at Volusia, Nationwide regular Kenny Wallace won his second consecutive A-Main and increased his points lead on Austin Dillon and Ken Schrader. Fellow Nationwide regular Mike Wallace was in the pits supporting his brother and said country musician Chris Cagle would be displayed on his JD Motorsports Chevrolet for the Drive4COPD 300 -- the day Cagle will present the national anthem.

Ageless Buzzie Reutimann, who has been racing dirt cars for six decades, made his first appearance at Volusia Thursday night in a No. 00 modified wrenched on by son David Reutimann. Buzzie said he was "resting up" the first two nights of the modified series and proved there was something to it in his eight-lap heat by holding off the night's overall quick-timer Schrader until the white flag lap. Reutimann finished 26th in the A-Main on a dry, dusty track.