Talladega has come and gone with the typical controversy that lingers afterword. Much of the talk this week has been about team orders, the negative impact of riding around in the back, Jimmie Johnson’s chance at six straight titles going south, and Carl Edwards looking to secure his first ever Sprint Cup. Lost in all of this madness has been the recent surge from non-Chase contender Kasey Kahne. The soon to be Hendrick driver endured a rough summer that eliminated any chances of him qualifying for the postseason, but the last month has been one of the best of his career. With just four more races until the 2011 season concludes, Kahne appears to be making a statement for next year.
Statistically speaking, Kahne doesn’t have the numbers that some of his colleagues who entered the series around the same time have posted. His 11 career victories rank lower than Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, all who started racing full-time after him. He doesn’t have a Daytona 500 win and he only has two Chase appearances in eight attempts. His highest points finish was eighth back in 2006, a season that he led the series in wins, but was marred by inconsistency. Because of this, he has always been considered talented, but never elite. Those who follow the sport closely, however, know Kahne has the potential to be one of the sport’s top drivers if given the right opportunity. The opportunity has been a year and half in the making, when Rick Hendrick announced in April of last year that the 2004 Rookie of the Year would be replacing Mark Martin at the conclusion of the 2011 campaign.
In many ways, Kahne’s career to this point is a throwback to driver development in the 90’s and earlier. He worked his way up driving sprint cars like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon did, and his path towards the top came from the traditional way. He wasn’t thrown into a top ride immediately; his first year in the Nationwide series he drove for Robert Yates racing in an underfunded program and in 2003 joined Akins Motorsports — a team that had achieved modest results in their first four seasons. It was a good campaign for the then 23-year old, good enough to drive for Ray Evernham in the Sprint Cup series the following season. Evernham had just started his team three years earlier, and Kahne was tapped to replace legend Bill Elliott, who was retiring from full-time racing.
With Kahne succeeding the 1988 Cup champ and Evernham’s past success as a crew chief with Jeff Gordon, many were expecting big things for the rookie. As a matter of fact, some even proclaimed him to be the next Gordon. His first year was pretty darn good, with 13 top-5s including five runner ups, but no victories. He was able to score that first win the following year at Richmond, but the consistency he demonstrated from his rookie season had vanished. His breakout year was that 2006 season in which he had six wins and qualified for his first ever Chase.
The seasons from then until now have been somewhat of a speed bump in his career. Evernham sold the majority of his team in 2007 to businessman George Gillett, who would later merge with Petty Enterprises less than two years later. Kahne remained the face of the organization, even giving Richard Petty his first win in over ten years as a car owner by taking the checkered flag at Sonoma in 2009. That year he also made his second playoff appearance, helping Petty make the Chase for the first time. Still, the organization was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Kahne’s future with the team seemed cloudy. With just four wins since his magical season back in 2006, many people had moved on from seeing him as the next Jeff Gordon and were looking at other drivers to be the next big star.
Arguably the biggest opportunity of his career arrived 18 months ago, when Rick Hendrick signed Kahne to replace another legend, this time Mark Martin. The only problem was Martin was still scheduled to race for Hendrick in 2011, leaving him without a seat. It didn’t take long for him to find one in Red Bull Racing, where he replaced Scott Speed. Any Kahne fan had to be worried about the move as RBR had not seen much success in their previous four years of competition, especially in the car Kahne was going pilot.
Fast forward to present day and any doubts before the year that he would struggle in a one year deal with RBR have disappeared. With the help of crew chief Kenny Francis — who was with him back at Evernham and will be calling the shots at Hendrick as well — Kahne has given the organization arguably its best year. He has yet to win and didn’t make the Chase as teammate Brian Vickers did in 2009, but his six top-5s and 321 laps led are the most for any Red Bull driver in a season. In a personal accomplishment, his current streak of four top-10s matches his career high that he set twice in 2006. The recent surge has propelled him to 14th in points, a position he hasn’t been higher than since week five. Keep in mind, he is doing this with a team that appears to be leaving the sport at season’s end.
Unless you are a newer fan, most of you were already aware of Kahne’s rise to the top. You likely even have your own opinion of where you think he ranks in terms of talent. However, for anyone that believes he will post the same numbers that soon to be teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Mark Martin have the last few years, think again. While some of this information may have sounded redundant, it is important because it clearly shows he has done a lot with a little. He doesn’t have the numbers that a Carl Edwards or a Kyle Busch has, but he has never been with a top tier team like they have been either. That all changes next year when he and Francis move over to the strongest team in NASCAR. As they have shown this year, this duo can take a struggling team and make it into a competitive one. Just imagine what they can do with a top-20 team.
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