Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday May 7, 2007
There Goes My Hero
Watch Him As He Goes
The scene: Richmond International Raceway, September 9th, 2006. An ecstatic Kasey Kahne can hardly control the smile on his face. Entering the night 11th in points, he finished it off one spot better, both sneaking into the Chase and delivering the knockout punch to longtime friend and defending champ Tony Stewart in the process. After a history built around oh-so-close and not quite enough, it was the defining moment of Kahne's breakthrough third season in which he catapulted himself from promising rookie turned perplexing sophomore to here-and-now championship contender in the making. Having visited Victory Lane multiple times already, Kahne was already a driver on the rise; sealing the envelope on the final Chase invitation appeared to give superstar status a knock on the door.
"Richmond will always be a special track for me," the 20-something with the teenaged-looking face spouted out, the words clearly outspoken by the ever-present curve upward of his lips. "I won my first Cup race here and I made my first Chase here. It's huge to be in the Chase. It's big for Evernham Motorsports. It's pretty cool. That was our goal when the season started, and I'm really happy that we made it. I'm proud of everybody on the No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge Charger team."
With that, Kahne was off to sign autographs, pose for pictures, and become the shining face of everything with a Dodge logo attached for the rest of the season. In the meantime, he continued to turn all intermediate tracks into his personal playground, winning a sixth time on the year at Charlotte while briefly challenging for the title trophy itself. It was a short late-season fade that took him out of contention in the end, a small blip on the radar in the form of two DNF's in the final four races. No worries, said the masses; leading 90 laps in the Homestead season finale, all signs were a go for the No. 9 to be more than fine in 2007. In the meantime, Kahne fans grew at a rate so fast you'd think they were being cloned; a national Allstate commercial combined with Kahne's marketability turned him into one of NASCAR's most popular personalities overnight.
Pressure cooker set to boil, the overwhelming expectations had been set.
There Goes My Hero
The present day: Richmond International Raceway, May 7th, 2007. Kasey Kahne sits despondently in a garage stall, watching nervously as his team works on repairing his No. 9 Dodge. There's a race going on around him; cars whiz by in circles, the drone of their whirring engines not lost on a driver whose only thought is to be out there racing with them.
"I'm disappointed," he says of the pile of junk beside him, still smoldering from the trip Kahne involuntarily took with it towards the outside wall. No one flinches; it's a line that's been repeated often during Kahne's many visits to the garage before the race is over. This marked the fourth time in ten races Kahne's been subjected to some off track time for repairs; that means at the pace the No. 9 team is going, they'll have twice as many stints behind the wall this season as they had wins last year.
Staring blankly ahead, Kahne is in the middle of justifying excuses for self-imposed problems.
"It all started two pit stops before," he finally spits out. "I sped on pit road. We should have been the Lucky Dog and back on the track with the leaders, but I sped. I didn't realize I was going that fast."
Still, that doesn't explain the car lying in tatters beside him. Unfazed, Kahne continues on. "We got to battling with Stremme and those guys, and my car was better. Everywhere I went, Stremme went. I was just confused on where he was going. He was going bottoms up, bottoms up. He was going all over the place. All the leaders were trying to pass him. I was a fast lapped car, and I was trying to pass him and he just got in the way like every other weekend."
Of course, there's one man who might pick a bone of contention to that theory.
"The 9 was a lap down and I was on the lead lap and he runs me into the fence," claimed Stremme in response. "That's the second time it's happened in six months, eight months, whatever. I've got to go talk to him. He's having a bad year, but he doesn't need to take it out on everybody else.”
"He beat on me. He was beating on my rear bumper â€¦ then he runs me into the fence."
So ends the tale of shocking extremes. The irony is that this time last Fall, Kahne was the lead lap vehicle was Stremme was the lapped car, battling to a miserable season in which the driver found himself outside the Top 35 in car owner points for the better part of half a year. It's not that bad for Kahne, but the year isn't close to being over yet; just 33rd in points, one more bad week could be all it could take for this year's darkhorse championship contender to spend his Fridays chattering teeth and wondering if he'll even qualify on speed. That type of situation rips you of your star power in a hurry.
Of course, it doesn't help when the reputation of your team takes a black eye before the season even starts. Hidden beneath the jet fuel of Michael Waltrip was a scandal that rocked the Daytona 500 in suspending all three of Evernham's team directors in the process. Nailed for cheating, Kahne's crew chief took the worst hit, with the Kahne- Kenny Francis powerhouse combo put on hold for almost a month. Everyone figured his return would spark a comeback; with each passing race registering another mediocre finish, the increasing reality of a slump becomes more evident.
"I have been on race teams before when it's who blames who and it's very bad when that happens," says teammate Elliott Sadler. "That's one thing I can say about Ray and everybody at Evernhamâ€¦ I have not seen that at all. One, there's no egos here, and two, there's no finger pointing. We know we've got a problem to fix, and we're going to fix it. Kasey and Scott and I are going to do our jobs as drivers not only to help ourselves, but help each other."
Apparently, Elliott hasn't seen Kasey do a television interview in the garage. Sadly, Kahne’s interview eventually went one step further, as he insulted Stremme’s weight and took more pointed shots at him during a SPEED interview. Unfortunately for Kahne, the weight of his words showcases his frustrations more than forcing Stremme run to the nearest scale. Perhaps perception has becomes blurred reality for a driver struggling more than ever before? Well, Kahne's reality is increasingly severe; one of the most popular picks for this year's title, he's now over 300 points out of the Chase and simply looking for any sniffs of a solid finish to consistently correct the problem.
Don't The Best Of Them Bleed It Out
While The Rest Of Them Peter Out
Repairs continuing Sunday, Kasey Kahne inevitably stopped talking and chose to stare off into space. Eyes watery and face distraught, his body language told you all you needed to know. He's doing all he can to try and stop the bleedingâ€¦except this time around, there doesn't seem to be a band-aid anywhere in sight. Until he can find it, that "superstar" label may need to come off; all he has left to cling onto for that status is a memorable night in September where he appeared to take a step towards greatness.
Since then, he's been anything but great.
Editor's Note : Lyrics From Foo Fighters' "My Hero" were used for this piece.
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