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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: NASCAR’s Most Popular Prospects Records Not as Stellar as You’d Expect

While the news of Kasey Kahne’s impending departure has dominated the news of last couple days, and pushed back an article I had originally intended to write. In my contribution from yesterday on Frontstretch , I proposed the notion that while Kahne is being tabbed to replace Mark Martin in the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolets, perhaps claiming rights to him this early is also an insurance policy should Dale Earnhardt Jr. ask for a release to drive for another team?

Whenever Earnhardt Jr.’s name comes up in article, there will invariably be a number of postings and comments from those on both sides of the aisle; those who feel he has gotten a raw deal at Hendrick Motorsports and lost in the shuffle between those who have long been woven into the fiber that is HMS, and his detractors who think he has been skating by on name recognition for far too long.

Considering that Kahne is soon to be joining Hendrick, and Ryan Newman just won a race Saturday night in Phoenix, I got to thinking: has Earnhardt Jr. really been struggling that much worse than other big name drivers in the sport?

Let’s first consider the case of Newman. The Rocket Man burst onto the scene in the Sprint Cup Series full-time back in 2002, positing a win, a pole, and narrowly claiming Rookie of the Year honors over Jimmie Johnson. The next season he would win eight races and 11 poles in his Penske Dodge, leading many to believe that the torch had been passed at Penske from Rusty to Ryan. A pair of wins would follow in 2004, but then the biscuit wheels came off the gravy train. In 2005, a lone win at Loundon would be his sole triumph of the year.

And the next. And the next one after that.

In 2008 he would have gone winless for a third straight season, had it not been for a late-race restart that saw him get a monster push from teammate Kurt Busch – and Tony Stewart pulling over to block a run from Kyle Busch that never really materialized. Newman again would go winless in 2009, and won Saturday night courtesy of a green-white-checkered restart; he was fifth when the final caution came out.

Has anybody during this time cast any doubts about Newman’s driving ability?

The other driver in this year’s slim free-agent pickings many believe is the other hottest property in NASCAR, Kevin Harvick. Harvick is nearly as well known now for fielding championship winning Camping World Truck Series rides for driver Ron Hornaday Jr. in two of the last three seasons, as well as capturing Nationwide Series drivers’ championships in 2001 and 2006. However on the Sprint Cup side of things, he has been lacking in recent years.

In 2006, Harvick won a career-high five races in Richard Childress’s No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolets, ultimately coming home fourth in the final standings, just 78 behind eventual champion Johnson.

Since then, Harvick has only visited victory lane in a points-paying race on one occasion in the Sprint Cup Series; the controversial end to the 2007 Daytona 500. It was a race that saw another GWC finish set up a run to the finish, and for the first time since 2003, NASCAR allowing cars to race back to the finish line while flipping over and on fire. Since his 11th career victory, about the only memorable Sprint Cup Series moments he has had are slap fighting with Juan Pablo Montoya in the turn 1 run-off area at Watkins Glen and getting choked out by Carl Edwards in the garage at Charlotte.

I don’t think anybody has suggested Harvick is getting by name recognition or driving Jeff Burton’s R&D cars.

One more name you could bring into the discussion is also HMS’s newest driver, Kahne. He has been far and away the most sought after driver in the garage this year, whose contract was up at seasons end with Richard Petty Motorsports. His talent is in such demand that that HMS signed him to drive for them – two years from now.

If you take a glance at Kahne’s career stats, they appear to be a roller coaster affair from the start. He burst onto the scene with Ray Evernham’s Dodge team in 2004, posting no wins but mustering 15 top 10s – 14 of which were top fives. He won his first race in 2005, albeit finishing a distant 23rd in points. The next season Evernham’s bunch was the one Dodge team who had the Charger’s finicky new nose figured out, winning six races and coming home eighth in the Chase for the Championship.

In 2007 Kahne went winless, missing the Chase and finishing 19th in the final standings. In 2008 he would post a pair of wins, but miss qualifying for the Chase yet again, even with standards relaxed and the field expanded to 12 competitors. Last season he was able to qualifying for the Chase thanks in part to a timely win in Atlanta a race before the Richmond cut-off, and courtesy of a pair of wins in his new RPM-branded Dodge.

Lest you think I am casting aspirations on Kahne’s 11 career wins and two Chase appearances, think again. I am simply questioning why some insist on impugning one driver (i.e., Earnhardt Jr.) who has scored significantly more wins than Newman, Harvick and Kahne (18 wins vs. the 14 of Newman and 11 of both Harvick and Kahne). All three drivers have experienced turmoil within their teams not quite unlike what Earnhardt Jr. did during the dark days at DEI and when things started going squirrelly at HMS towards the end of 2008.

Newman was not exactly the biggest fan of former teammate Wallace, while Harvick was originally thrust into a nearly impossible situation following the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001, has been quite vocal in his criticism of team owner Childress and the overall lack of speed the last couple of seasons. Meanwhile Kahne has endured an absentee owner, and the name of the race team changing more often than… uh… well, the title sponsor of… NASCAR’s premier series….

I am sure Kasey Kahne will be successful in his new venture with Hendrick Motorsports, however don’t be surprised that the same people who have questioned Junior’s commitment, fortitude, and talent are ready to label Kahne as nothing more than a sponsor-friendly revenue stream should he not come out of the box and perform to the level of Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Martin in the No. 5 car – assuming he doesn’t end up in another car before that.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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