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Menzer: Early struggles set new bar for Kahne

March 19, 2012, Joe Menzer,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Mind-set is crucial as driver fights to head off rough start to Hendrick career

It wasn't supposed to be this way for the hotshot, wildly popular driver who made his way to Hendrick Motorsports amid much fanfare.

No, not Dale Earnhardt Jr. That's another story -- or perhaps a cautionary tale for those such as Kasey Kahne, who trailed Earnhardt into the HMS fold.

"I hate it for everybody. It's really disappointing and discouraging to have as fast of race cars as I've had and not have anything to show for it."


Kahne made his way to Hendrick after a one-year hiatus at the now-defunct Red Bull Racing operation, which followed nearly seven full seasons of honing his skills while driving for Ray Evernham and, later, a team headed up loosely by George Gillett Jr.

This is supposed to be Kahne's time. The No. 5 Chevrolet he gets to wheel now allegedly is the ride of his lifetime.

But there he was -- again -- left bewildered after another disastrous and all-too-short run Sunday in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Well, for Kahne it actually proved to be the Food City 366 -- and he was somewhat fortunate to be able to complete that many laps after a vicious wreck on Lap 23 ruined his work day long before it mercifully ended for good.

The wreck relegated Kahne to a 37th-place finish and knocked him all the way back to 32nd in the point standings after the season's first four races. Sunday's debacle came on the heels of disappointing finishes of 29th in the Daytona 500, 34th at Phoenix and 19th after sitting on the pole at Las Vegas.

Then, just when it seemed his inaugural Hendrick season couldn't get any worse, it did.

"This is the worst way I could start a season," Kahne said.

Sunday's wreck

Kahne said he was simply biding his time Sunday, trying to be calm and calculating in a long race that eventually tests every driver's patience. He passed Regan Smith's No. 78 Chevrolet and thought he had cleared it -- indeed, Kahne's spotter told Kahne that he had -- when in fact it turned out he hadn't really.

So as Kahne moved up the track to an area he believed to be clear, Smith clipped him. Mayhem resulted instantly.

When the multitude of cars stopped spinning and wrecking and smoking, Kahne's No. 5 Chevrolet appeared to have gotten the worst of the entire deal. (A point only Carl Edwards, who finished 39th as a result of the accident, could fairly argue with any degree of conviction).

"My Farmer's Insurance Chevrolet was the fastest car here in the first run. We were going forward, just taking our time," Kahne said. "Regan Smith was pretty slow. I was under him for a couple of laps. When my spotter cleared me in the center, I just took off -- and he was there on exit. ... I listened too much to my spotter, I guess.

"It's disappointing to have that good of a car and be out of the running that early. Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports is doing such an awesome job. I've had awesome race cars, and I have nothing to show for it."

In fairness, the accident wasn't necessarily Smith's fault.

"I'm not sure why the incident with Kasey happened, but it was way too early in the race for anything like that to occur," said Smith, who went on to finish 24th after repairs to his car. "He came up on me and I didn't have any place to go. He might have thought he cleared me, but he didn't. It was costly for us, as it was for many other teams."

The gaping hole

So now Kahne is off to next Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway in California. One of his 12 career wins came at the venue, but heck, at this point he'd settle for a solid top-10 finish that could at least be construed as a wobbly step in the right direction.

Kahne came to Hendrick with the same crew chief, Kenny Francis, that has been with him for seven seasons running and has helped guide him to Victory Lane for all of Kahne's Sprint Cup wins. They were supposed to already have forged that magical chemistry. They were supposed to arrive on the scene and start winning races left and right, gearing up for an immediate run at the Chase for the Sprint Cup and the ultimate goal of winning a championship.

Sound familiar?

It should. Folks said all the same stuff about Earnhardt when he arrived at Hendrick in 2008. Kahne's spotter who arguably screwed up Sunday was his cousin. Earnhardt's crew chief in 2008 was his cousin, Tony Eury Jr.

In both instances, it was a case of old faces simply moving onto new places. Better places.

But it's never quite that easy in racing. Earnhardt could have told Kahne that, and perhaps he even did. No doubt Kahne simply thought this could never happen to him.

There is plenty of time left for Kahne to turn his season around. And with the wild-card system in place where drivers who win races have a realistic chance to get into the Chase even if they're lagging behind in points, he's far from out of anything.

That's the battle that must be waged now. Kahne can't let himself or his team get down too much over the shocking start to their season -- or then it really will be over.

"I hate it for everybody," Kahne said. "It's really disappointing and discouraging to have as fast of race cars as I've had and not have anything to show for it."

That is understandably so, but now is not the time to give in to those emotions. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Time will tell, and quickly, which way Kahne and his team are going to take their season.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.