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Caraviello: Most important Hendrick driver not who you think

May 30, 2012, David Caraviello,

For Hendrick to remain top dog in Cup Series, it's essential Kahne is successful

The event brought together Rick Hendrick's dual worlds of automobile sales and automobile racing, all on a single steamy early-summer afternoon. The championship car owner and his newest driver, Kasey Kahne, were on hand last week to open a new dealership in south Charlotte, and race fans had lined up for hours to get autographs. Before the ribbon was cut, a few questions were fielded from the crowd -- including one about whether Kahne would win the upcoming 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway

"I'd sure like to," the driver responded.

Start of something

Kasey Kahne has shaken his early bad luck and could use his recent strong runs, including a win at Charlotte, as a springboard to make the Chase, writes Joe Menzer.

The boss man playfully interjected. "Like to isn't good enough," Hendrick said.

After a bashful pause, Kahne managed the only correct answer there was. "I'm going to win the 600 this week," he said.

And behold there he was Sunday night -- standing in Victory Lane soaked in champagne and covered in confetti after doing just that. Hendrick is an admirer of Winston Churchill, and sometimes likes to try and nudge his employees to go beyond their comfort zone, and his needling of Kahne a few days earlier may very well have been an attempt to lift the confidence of someone who had endured a difficult start to the season. Regardless, the end result -- Kahne's first win under the Hendrick Motorsports banner -- was significant for more than just the man behind the wheel. It was vital for the organization as well, given that right now Kahne may be the most important driver in the Hendrick stable.

Now that's not to say he's the most decorated or the most gifted, although the latter could certainly be argued. This is still, after all, the home of a four-time champion and a five-time champion and NASCAR's most popular driver, all of whom have more career Sprint Cup victories and likely more name recognition than their newest teammate. Jimmie Johnson is the greatest champion of his generation, Jeff Gordon is a lion in winter, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Dale Earnhardt Jr. At 32, Kahne is the youngest driver at Hendrick, and given what he's been able to do with some inferior cars at other points in his career, the potential for greatness is clearly there. Even so, in terms of accomplishments, his teammates outdistance him -- for now.

Because this is less about the present than it is the future, and Kahne putting himself in position to one day emerge as the on-track leader of NASCAR's best organization. True, Sunday was only one victory, but there's a reason why everyone forecast greatness for this combination of a gifted driver and a great team. Looking back, it's amazing that Kahne has won as many races as he has, having endured the ineptness of former car owner George Gillett's management, the near-bankruptcy of Richard Petty Motorsports, and the shutdown of Red Bull. Those days are behind him. "You grow and you learn," he said after his 600 victory, when asked about all the upheaval he's endured. "I think all that stuff was good for me. Now to be at Hendrick Motorsports is just a dream come true."

Surely, Hendrick feels the same, given that Kahne brings a degree of youth and punch that's been missing from his organization since the days of Kyle Busch. No question, Gordon is still an extremely capable driver -- he did win three times last season, after all -- and as his seventh-place finish Sunday showed, he can still get the most out of a car if something on it doesn't break. Earnhardt's epic winless skid may have reached 141 races with the 600, but given how well he's run this season, it's not ridiculous to think that once the dam bursts for him, he could go on a run much like his team has since its quest for that 200th victory finally came to an end. And yet, neither one those drivers has shown the remarkable consistency of Johnson, who since 2002 has effectively carried the Hendrick organization on his broad shoulders.

That's not to say Hendrick is a one-man team; it swept the top three positions in points as recently as 2009, and Gordon and Mark Martin each had great runs in there that nearly netted them championships. Both those titles, though, ultimately went to the driver of the No. 48 car, whose sustained excellence the past decade has done more than anything else to help keep Hendrick ahead of the pack. How integral has Johnson's success been to Hendrick? Since 2002, the organization has 98 victories at NASCAR's highest level. Johnson is responsible for 56 of them. Their fortunes rise and fall proportionately -- when Johnson wins races in bunches, Hendrick flourishes. When Johnson struggles, we witness something like the 16-race winless streak that preceded the organization's 200th win.

Which was claimed, conveniently enough, by Johnson, who may have challenged Kahne for the win Sunday if not for a pit road mistake, and looks to be back in championship form after a down season. But clearly, that kind of imbalance can't be sustained forever. And the prime candidate at Hendrick to take some of the load off of the five-time champion is Kahne, who is younger, who is loaded with potential, who like Tony Stewart has that same raised-on-dirt level of car control that seems to translate so well into the current Sprint Cup vehicle. The last time Kahne was in cars this consistently good, and with an organization this stable, he won six times in a single season for an Evernham Motorsports outfit that was trying to elbow its way in among the big boys.

That's not to sell the other Hendrick drivers short. Gordon's cars have been fast all year, and the guy can still wheel it, and if he's not plagued by boils or locusts, he could very well win a race or two this season. Earnhardt keeps on keeping on, knocking out top-10s and knocking on the door of his first victory in four years. "Dale is doing a great job," Hendrick said. "He's running in the top 10 every week. He might have a couple times he slips out. But he's in position to take advantage of an adjustment here or there, a break here or there. He's going to win a race."

That's a burden Kahne -- who, remember, won as recently as last fall in a Red Bull car that was weeks away from being shut down and sold -- has already slipped. He reels off a few more, and suddenly Hendrick is a much more balanced and a much more dangerous organization, with a devastating 1-2 punch to go along with a pair of sleeping giants. In the process, Kahne becomes the heir apparent the team needs to stay on top. Hendrick keeps applying the Churchillian pressure. "Now you've got to win Dover," the car owner told Kahne jovially in the afterglow of their Charlotte victory. The driver just smiled. "I don't say too much," he said. "I'd rather just try to perform when it's time."

For Kahne, the youngest and perhaps most important driver at Hendrick Motorsports, that time may be just beginning. And his organization's status as the best team in NASCAR may depend on it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch all of Kasey Kahne's highlights from the 2012 season: