As the curtain closed on another Southern 500 Saturday night, the Lady In Black shined brightly on three of the four cars at Richard Petty Motorsports. Elliott Sadler, AJ Allmendinger and Reed Sorenson persevered to hard-fought top-20 finishes, battling back from miserable starts as they looked to turn their seasons around.
As for their teammate Kasey Kahne?
He was simply nowhere to be found. The final results listed the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge the first car one lap down in 23rd… nothing to write home about on a night in which the red and white car wound up all but forgotten at the finish.
And that has very much been the story of Kahne’s season to date. Yes, he led some laps at Darlington (45, to be precise) after one lap led all season, but ultimately bad luck led to his third straight poor finish, following a 36th-place effort at Talladega and a frustrating 29th at Richmond – good enough to place him 16th and 81 points out of Chase contention nearing the one third mark of a difficult 2009. Looking for answers, the team’s top driver has become a top target for the Cup Series’ Biggest Disappointment of the Spring.
It’s a spot he knows all too well.
At this stage last year, Kahne sat 14th in the standings, just two points out of 12th place in the midst of a season-long bout with inconsistency. But a fan vote-in turned surprise winner in the All-Star Race, very much against the odds, turned the tide for the No. 9 team in late spring. Their upset was followed by a win in the Coca-Cola 600 the following Sunday, the team benefiting when Tony Stewart cut a tire late. Two races later, Kahne was in victory lane again at Pocono, and a second-place run the following week in Michigan saw him rise to seventh in the overall standings before a midsummer slump saw him fade right back out of Chase contention.
Still, that streak leaves reason for optimism for Kahne as he heads into that same stretch of favorable tracks in the next month. He finished first and second (not to mention the All-Star win) at Lowe’s last season, so if there’s anywhere the Enumclaw, Wash. native is likely to get a kickstart in the standings, it’s at NASCAR’s “home” track. But it’s the race at Dover that will perhaps be the pivotal point of his 2009 season. Last week, RPM’s Robbie Loomis announced that one of his team’s cars will run the new Dodge engine at the Monster Mile; it’s the same engine, don’t forget, that has proved so speedy for Kurt Busch in leading his Penske Racing Dodge to the top of the standings earlier this month. Now, it’s true Loomis did not confirm it will be Kahne who runs the new powerplant, but who do you really expect it to be? Allmendinger, Sadler, or Sorenson?
By all accounts, it’s not a moment too soon for the No. 9 team to snag some extra horses under the hood, especially when given the relative lack of power of the RPM motors vis-à-vis the competition at Talladega. Qualifying a dismal 35th, Kahne clocked in faster than anyone else within the four-car organization before they all went to the rear after faulty parts forced them to change motors. Getting involved in the first Big One just seven laps into that event, Kahne was never close to being in contention at a track where he’s finished as high as second place.
That poor showing left the usually vanilla Kahne more than a little outspoken when it came to criticizing his vehicles. “They’re starting to listen, but my concerns have been the same for a while,” he said in response to rumors he was losing his patience with RPM’s management. “Sometimes, early in the year and the end of last year, I’d tell them my concerns and they’d look at you, it would go in one ear and out the other and they’d go about their day. But in the last three weeks [prior to Darlington] they have really started to think about it and said, ‘Our cars are really heavy and our engines really don’t run’ and they’re starting to work on it.”
It’s easy to see how some of Kahne’s frustrations can be traced to the preseason decision by the head honchos to stick with the status quo and soldier on with the old engine. But it was a decision prompted by a surfeit of stock, not to mention the vast uncertainty surrounding the future of Dodge in the sport. After all, it didn’t make much sense to spend vast sums developing the new engine only to end up having to make the move to a different manufacturer for the 2010 season. And with George Gillett planning a possible move to Toyota, the team was poised to do just that before a last-second merger with Petty kept their loyalty to Dodge intact – albeit a bit behind the curve.
Yet following the manufacturer officially filing for bankruptcy at Richmond last weekend, their long-term solution is assuaging some of the very real concerns RPM had. Now, it appears that the worst is behind them and the company is in the sport for the long haul. “[The] Chrysler guys contacted us and said they were going to continue to support NASCAR,” said Roger Penske, fellow Dodge owner and the head of several Chrysler dealerships. “Hopefully, they can do that based on what the government allows them to do. We’re cautiously optimistic right now… really, quite honestly, if they get the capital and have a smaller company they’re going to be more viable than before. Hopefully, motorsports turns into a marketing opportunity.”
So, assuming manufacturer stability, the new engine appears to be the next most logical step for RPM – and Kahne its most logical recipient. The key question now is, will it pay dividends in the way that it has for the blue deuce of the hitherto forgotten man, Kurt Busch?
The answer, at the moment, is not so clear. Running his sixth full season, Kahne has nine wins in 191 attempts, 36 top fives and 65 top 10s. Six of those wins, though, came in the 2006 season, and despite what has to be considered a very strong start to a Sprint Cup career, it’s reaching a point where Kahne needs to push onwards and upwards before he ends up being labeled a one-season wonder. An added pressure for the 28-year-old, especially in these troubled economic times, is the support from his primary sponsor Budweiser. The long-term NASCAR backer’s commitment to Kahne would seem unwavering – especially since the split with the sport’s poster child, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – but there can be little doubt the brewing giant expects better results than what he is currently posting. And with the company facing financial troubles of their own, their continued participation in motorsports could depend on whether Kahne gives them enough of a reason to stay involved.
No matter what, it’s clear for the short-term the results for this driver will have to come at RPM. With no obvious top line rides available next year, he said in late April, “I made a commitment to race with [the team] through 2010, so I’ll do that for sure. I told them from the start that if we can get our cars where they are right and competitive with the best teams out here, then I don’t know why I would ever want to move from that company.”
But if Kahne is to translate that optimism into reality, it needs to start soon, real soon, and end with a place in the Chase leaving Richmond in September. The good news is that he’s a scant 81 points out of 12th, far from an insurmountable deficit and not all that far off the one he had entering this weekend last year. There is not enough of a difference in the standings approaching the halfway point to the Chase that a good run of races and a string of top-five finishes can’t vault the diminutive driver back into the coveted top 12. Atop the pit box is one of the best head wrenches in the business in Kenny Francis, and despite all the commotion over the offseason, the No. 9 team remained largely intact around him. That cohesion can only benefit them now, coming in a season where pit-road mistakes are making a crucial difference each and every week on the track. It takes a settled team and strong veteran leadership will, at the very least, to provide the safety net of experience and right the ship before it’s too late.
There is still much to like about Kahne these days. Sure, he’s not a Kyle Busch larger than life type character; but he’s popular with fans, drivers and sponsors alike, and when given solid equipment, has shown he knows how to wheel his way around a racetrack. But the man who has run a full schedule for each of the five years of the Chase has still only made the Big Dance once, in 2006. Even after last year’s sizzling summer, four finishes of 30th or worse in the next 11 races were what saw him fall out of Chase contention for the second straight year. To fall by the wayside for a third? That’s a hit this driver can’t afford to take.
So, as we head back to the track Kahne’s quite literally owned these past two years, the No. 9 team is the one to watch with their season approaching make-or-break status. A strong finish in NASCAR’s longest race might be just the fillip this beleaguered team and driver needs. And if it doesn’t work out at Charlotte, there’s always the new engine to look forward to at Dover… perhaps the last, final chance for them to keep from fading into the sunset.
One way or another, the next few weeks will likely decide how Kahne’s 2009 season will ultimately be remembered. Will this be the point at which we look back and say that’s where the charge for the Chase began to gather steam, or the moment when Kahne’s hopes for a playoff berth nosedived? With the clouds of uncertainty swirling, it’s time for him to get going; and just as it was this time last year, the only way to go is up.