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Menzer: Kahne's win could be start of something great

May 28, 2012, Joe Menzer,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Driver easily could climb into Chase for the Sprint Cup if strong runs continue

It's an old story.

Celebrated driver moves to a standout team. Predictions are made. Sparks prepare to fly. Participants ready for a storybook season.

"I just knew for myself, I needed to step up."


And nothing much happens.

No, this isn't a repeat of the tale of Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving to Hendrick Motorsports. Or at least driver Kasey Kahne hopes not -- and after his victor Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it is beginning, finally, to look like Kahne's first season and early tenure with the company might outshine Earnhardt's.

Kahne still has a long way to go, of course. The win was Kahne's first in the No. 5 Chevrolet for HMS. Earnhardt won one race during his first season with the organization, too, back in June 2008.

The point is that none of this is as easy as it looks or seems, and it doesn't look or seem that easy. But when a talented and proven tandem such as Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis make a move to one of the most storied race organizations in the history of NASCAR, it's only natural to expect immediate and somewhat spectacular results.

"I went for it," Kahne said.

In doing so, he finished 29th in the season-opening Daytona 500 after getting swept up in a late accident. The following week at Phoenix, he finished 34th. Two weeks after that, he was 37th at Bristol. Two weeks after that, a blown engine at Martinsville, of all places, left him 31st in the point standings after a 38th-place finish.

"I don't think I've blown a motor at Martinsville in 20 years," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "He was sitting on the pole, running second, and we lost the motor."

Changing times

Hendrick's point was that Kahne was a victim of "rotten luck." That started to change six races ago, when Kahne finished seventh in Texas. He followed that with finishes of eighth at Kansas, fifth at Richmond, fourth at Talladega and eighth at Darlington before getting to Victory Lane in Charlotte.

That's six consecutive finishes of eighth or better, which could signal the start of something great.

Kahne tasted greatness Tuesday night, when Hendrick hosted a party for his employees to celebrate the organization's 200th win in NASCAR's premier series. As part of the celebration, every driver who had won a race for Hendrick was called up on stage.

So was Kahne, eventually, because he's a member of the HMS family. He admitted Sunday that he didn't truly feel like he belonged.

"Being there Tuesday night and listening to the stories of all the drivers who had won, thinking about the history that lies within Hendrick Motorsports and how much Rick Hendrick and [wife] Linda have done for the sport, done for so many people, was pretty awesome," Kahne said. "I was super happy I was there and got to listen to those guys and be part of that.

"But it's great to win a race now and be part of the 201st win."

Patience required

Kahne now realizes achieving the good things in life frequently requires some patience, even when all the right tools and resources are placed at your disposal.

"I think the biggest thing for myself was just to figure out the cars, figure out how they drove," Kahne said. "It's been a little bit different for me. We've had speed. Even the last five, six races, we've been in the top 10, but not near as fast as Jimmie Johnson or a couple of those guys who have been winning races.

"I just knew for myself, I needed to step up. Our team is solid. Our car is solid. Mr. Hendrick gives us everything we need to win races and run up front. [Sunday] night we were able to put it all together."

Hendrick insisted he never was worried. Even when Kahne finished poorly, his car displayed the kind of speed necessary for success.

"I've been doing this long enough to know that if you have speed, if you can run up front, you're going to win races," Hendrick said. "If you're running 20th, you stretch gas mileage and you end up with a couple of 10th-place finishes, you're not going to win running like that. It felt like all along when the luck would turn, these guys would win races."

Races, he said. Plural. As in more than the one they just captured.

Kahne's win throws him back into the Chase for the Sprint Cup conversation. To be one of the 12 drivers to get in, he either will have to be in the top 10 in points after the first 26 races or be one of the two wild-card entries, who get in by virtue of the highest number of race wins, as long as they're between 11th and 20th in points.

Kahne moved to 15th in the points with his win. Two drivers are ahead of him in the wild-card race, Brad Keselowski (11th in points, two wins) and Ryan Newman (13th in points, one win).

With plenty of racing left before the Chase cutoff, Kahne easily could climb into the top 10 if he continues his current hot streak. He desperately wants to be part of the postseason party, and he wants to help write an ending to his first season with HMS that will overshadow its ugly beginning.

"We're going to try to get more wins," Kahne said. "If that's the way we get in, great. If we race into the top 10, then that's awesome, too."

The stage is set. Next time Kahne gets to climb onto it, he thinks he will feel like he belongs.