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With push from teammates, are Kahne's gains near?

June 06, 2014, Pat DeCola,

Driver's struggles more pronounced due to success of teammates

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LONG POND, Pa. -- Hendrick Motorsports has been fast in 2014. Really fast.

Three of the team's four drivers are second and tied for third in top-10 finishes this season, with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. combining for 25 of them.

But that's just it -- three out of four.

What about Kasey Kahne? He seems to be the forgotten man, brushed away amid a whirlwind of major NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories in the Daytona 500 (Earnhardt) and Coca-Cola 600 (Johnson), and an I'm-not-ready-to-retire win for Gordon at Kansas.

As an organization, HMS expects to put four cars in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup every year -- which it has done the past two seasons -- but 13 races into the season it looks like one team is dangerously close to missing that mark.


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"As a group, we want all four cars in the Chase and we need to get Kasey a win," Johnson said Friday at Pocono Raceway. "So that part is still kind of out there. We're three-quarters of the way there to having a full testing plan focused solely on the Chase, so hopefully we can get the 5 car in soon and let that go the rest of the way."

Upon closer investigation, Kahne's results -- one top-five and four top-10s in 13 starts -- are not entirely indicative of his speed. At certain times the 5 team has been exceptionally fast, and he has one of the sport's best support systems surrounding him.

Between advice he can get from his Hendrick stablemates -- all could be future Hall of Famers -- and the fact that the compound is working with some of the best equipment in the garage, it puts Kahne in a position to succeed, even if the results haven't shown it yet in 2014. There's also the fact that Kahne has had multiple victories in five of his 10 full-time seasons, including last year.

"I know their cars are fast, so it's kind of a frustration, disappointment that they haven't been able to capitalize," Johnson said. "We're all working very hard together and very close with Kasey. We just had a test session in New Hampshire and talked in great detail with our cars and what's going on. We even considered swapping rides. Things got a little hectic in the afternoon because of some weather so things didn't work out, but we're doing everything we can to really elevate Hendrick but also to help those guys get the win."

It certainly appears the Hendrick teams have two clear-cut goals entering this weekend's Pocono 400 (1 p.m. ET, TNT) -- win the race if you can, but help the 5 team if you can't. The sooner Kahne adds his name to the ring of victors, the sooner the organization can focus its testing efforts on tracks it will see in September through November with hopes of bringing the outlet its second consecutive and 12th overall Sprint Cup title.

"At Hendrick Motorsports, we all want to be in the Chase," said Kahne, who enters the weekend 18th in points. "What Jimmie is talking about is making sure the No. 5 is in. He's not going to give anything to me, but he's definitely going to be happy if we pulled it off and won a race. Last time we were here, we won. So I feel good about racing at Pocono."

Oh, that's right -- Kahne's last win, in fact, came at Pocono in August after starting 18th and weaving through the field to lead 66 laps and pick up his second victory of the season. And not only that, the Tricky Triangle is one of just three tracks (Atlanta, Charlotte) where he has multiple victories.

So while there's a general sense of worry hanging over Kahne's camp, the fog isn't as thick it might appear, despite Long Pond's elevation of 1,800 feet.

Still, Kahne's bad luck this season (see: oil spill in the Sprint All-Star Race) has been enough to get under the driver's skin, even if just a little.

"It's been a bit frustrating at times, but I think I've handled it all pretty well," Kahne said. "In my opinion, I feel like I have. Last Monday was probably the worst Monday I've had of the season after a bad result. ... I get down a little, but I've actually handled it all pretty well and I'm excited to be here and I want to win.

"I think there has been a touch of bad luck and then we just haven't put together full races. We've had great practices over the last month, maybe a little more than that. We've been really good in practice (and) great at times during the race, but we haven't put together the full race. And when we have, it's been one and then we forget how for the next three, and then come back for the fourth one and run pretty well. That side of it's been tough and we're all looking at that together to try to make it better."

Things didn't exactly get off to a rousing start this weekend, as Kahne's No. 5 Chevrolet placed 20th in the opening practice Friday afternoon with a best speed of 177.504 mph. He later qualified 27th.

Kahne noted that his car was real tight and got loose to one side during practice, but that crew chief Kenny Francis was on it and the car should be better Saturday. 

Even if the win doesn't come Sunday, Pocono presents Kahne with one of his best opportunities to right the ship and work on building some momentum to finally break through.

"Our stretch of tracks that we run really well at started about three weeks ago," Kahne said. "It goes for another month, so hopefully we can hit on something over this little span that we have. We haven't yet, but we are in a good group of tracks for myself and Kenny and our team. We just have to do the best we can and hopefully as a group we figure it out and can start putting full races together."


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