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Hendrick move gives Kahne shot at glory
A note of apology hung on a sign inside the front door of the Kasey Kahne Racing complex here last month. The souvenir store was closed, it explained, still awaiting its 2012 inventory. The truckload of brand-new merchandise bearing the No. 5 Farmer’s Insurance Chevrolet that Kahne will drive for NASCAR’s legendary Hendrick Motorsports team had not yet arrived.
NASCAR on FOX brings live coverage of the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 1 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET.
However, inside the race shop, NASCAR’s next sure-bet had.
Kasey Kahne stood in the hall beyond the entrance, chatting with one of his employees. He had just come in, fresh off one of his daily morning swims at the local YMCA. He looked fit, relaxed and assured.
Glancing around the massive facility that houses Kahne’s successful World of Outlaws operation and his personal offices, it’s obvious the 31-year-old has come a long way from his 2004 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year breakout season — a time when his mom still operated his fan club out of the family’s garage in tiny, faraway Enunclaw, Wash.
Now, it’s show time.
After a half decade of making the most of tenuous circumstance with three teams, Kahne now will race for the most successful operation in NASCAR’s modern era, teaming with a five-time champ, Jimmie Johnson; the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.; and Kahne’s own childhood hero, Jeff Gordon.
“This is make or break, and they know that,’’ said Gordon’s former crew chief, Ray Evernham, who hired Kahne to his own team in 2004.
“But Kasey and (crew chief) Kenny (Francis) do the best they can every year, so neither one of them is going crazy with pressure.
“Kasey is just getting to the peak of his career. This is the first time since 2006 they will be in a stable environment and won’t have to worry about having everything they need.’’
Stable is the operative word here, and it has a palpable presence.
Sitting at a conference table in the KKR shop in January, Kahne looked as settled as he has in years. But his calm demeanor belied his eagerness for this season to begin.
After all, he already has patiently endured an unheard-of, year-long “engagement” with Hendrick Motorsports, announcing a four-year contract with the team in late 2010 that didn’t begin until 2012.
He and longtime crew chief Francis spent the season-long wait with Red Bull Racing, where they delivered the young team only its second win in five years — a testament to Kahne’s willpower as much as his talent.
The job at Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t just give Kahne and Francis the best resources available. It delivers stability after a whirlwind half decade that started out so promisingly for Kahne but became a case study in early overachievement.
Kahne’s 2004 rookie year with the Evernham Motorsports factory Dodge team produced stunning runner-up finishes in two of his first three Cup races, and he earned four poles and seven top-three finishes that season.
The following year, he scored his first career Cup win — at Richmond International Raceway. And he nearly won the Brickyard 400, finishing as runner-up to another of his heroes, Tony Stewart. In 2006, he collected a series-best six victories and won a career-high six pole positions to earn his first Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff berth.
The next year, however, Evernham sold part of his team and the organization became Gillett Evernham Motorsports. In 2009, it merged with Petty Enterprises and became Richard Petty Motorsports. The ownership evolution and team’s financial worries created off-track challenges and affected on-track performance.
After winning seven times in his first three years on the circuit, Kahne has won only five times in the six years since.
He’s driven a Dodge (Evernham), Ford (Richard Petty Motorsports), Toyota (Red Bull Racing) and now a Chevrolet.
The only constant was Kahne’s pairing with Francis, who joked that he doubted anyone else in the sport had worked with all four manufacturers in a span of five years.
“This is obviously our best opportunity, and we went through so many ups and downs to get here,’’ Francis said.
“We felt like at Evernham in 2006 things were really going good, then the company had some issues and we know that story.
“It just gives you perspective. Life is about making the best of adverse situations and overcoming obstacles. That’s what the challenge is, and when you do overcome them, that’s what gives you the satisfaction.’’
Kahne agreed that while the last few years have been trying, he never stopped learning from the experiences.
“It would be impossible to predict how crazy it’s been,’’ Kahne said.
“I look at it as we did a decent job for what we were given, but I learned a lot of things to do and a lot of things not to do during that time period. Was it ideal? No, but we got the most out of it, made the best of it.’’
His new team owner and teammates recognize as much. Even last year, Hendrick crew chiefs and drivers were champing at the bit waiting to benefit from Francis’ technical expertise.
And they haven’t just welcomed Kahne into the fold. They declared him to be potentially their biggest championship threat.
“If you look at Evernham Motorsports to Red Bull, all the ups and downs they’ve been through and the success they had at each place, they bring a lot to the table,’’ Johnson said. “It was such an easy decision to bring them on. You see the way people work, and he and Kenny always finding a way to do a good job.
“I really feel the stability here at Hendrick and the open arms we’ve welcomed them with, they are going to be very dangerous.’’
Four-time champ Gordon — who will share a shop with Kahne — shares Johnson’s sentiment.
“I think they could be very dangerous,’’ Gordon said.
“We around here are kind of used to that with Jimmie Johnson, a five-time champion. A lot of times, most of our competition is from inside. Kenny is smart, and Kasey’s a great driver. Even though they’re new, they’re expecting big things, just like the rest of us are.’’
Kahne is well aware that his prime opportunity comes with high expectations.
“I kinda have thought that — and everyone has said that — you have the best equipment, so you have to do this or that,’’ Kahne said, making eye contact to emphasis the point.
“Dead serious, when I got to Daytona (for preseason testing), I didn’t feel any different. I got to the track like I always did. Finished three days of testing, jumped on the plane with the team and went home.
“As big a deal, and as excited as I am, I truthfully don’t feel it’s going to be any different in terms of pressure.
“I’ve always just done things my way. Anyone else can try to put pressure on me, but I’m gonna do it my way and it’s either gonna work or it’s not.
“We’ll see how high we can rise, how well we can step up and see what we can do throughout the whole season. That’s my biggest deal, is to be consistent as I’ve ever been each week and to win races.
“If we can do that, we’re going to have a great year.’’