It was April of 2010, in the heat of the Arizona desert, where Kasey Kahne got busy answering questions on what it was like to land your dream job… only to wait nearly nineteen months to get it. Signed by Hendrick Motorsports earlier in the week, the pending free agent had earned the keys to a No. 5 car that had just finished runner-up in the title Chase to Jimmie Johnson. With crew chief Kenny Francis all but a package deal, the future was bright … it just seemed a long way off. The road ahead seemed daunting; a “lame duck” year with Richard Petty Motorsports, then God-Knows-What in 2011 before assuming the reins of a Hendrick Chevy come February 2012.
Back then, Kahne underplayed those concerns with an “aw shucks” mentality. Three rides in three years? Whatever; the light at the end of the tunnel was worth it.
“I feel like I can adapt pretty quickly,” he said. “You have to adapt as a race car driver; that’s just something I’m going to go through and I’m going to figure out how to do it the best I can.”
Across the way, veteran Jeff Burton entered Phoenix once again assuming the role of title contender. One year after missing the playoffs, his No. 31 team sat fifth in points, hadn’t finished outside the top 20 and was coming off a Martinsville near miss. Leading 140 laps, a cut tire in the closing circuits was the only reason Burton handed the trophy to the ailing ACL of Denny Hamlin.
Up to this point, these two had succeeded in different ways; you had the quiet, marketable twenty-something upstart and a forty-something, veteran elder statesman at a time where those drivers run few and far between. But there was no arguing with the success of either one; both men were yearly threats for the Chase, leaders in their programs and earned 32 Cup victories combined across their careers.
Who would have guessed it would take until Sunday, November 14th, 2011 at Phoenix to find a 33rd? It was Kahne who finally cashed in, ending his part of this two-driver disastrous slump with the most unlikely of scenarios: driving for his one-year stopgap, Red Bull Racing, whose organization is likely to lay off everyone the second the checkered flag flies in Homestead.
“We’re lucky that everybody kept working hard and has stayed after it,” said Kahne, who scooted out ahead of the two title contenders, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards to score the upset. “They’re preparing great racecars. We’re bringing awesome cars to the track.”
“They haven’t given up.”
More importantly, neither did Kasey, dealing with two teams in two seasons while finding that “adaptability” far more difficult than it first appeared. After a miserable 2010, going winless and Chaseless, the concern grew to penniless when the driver and several crew members were rumored to not get paid last fall, the height of RPM’s financial crisis. Crashing at Charlotte, claiming faulty brakes the driver quickly found an out; he left the track early with “stomach sickness” despite the fact the car was still reparable. Kahne surfaced the following morning, running a 5K in a move that caused people to publicly mock his excuse. But the conflict, and his contract was over; he’d be released to drive for Red Bull days later.
Still, questions lingered, and Kahne’s typically quiet, easygoing personality took a hit in the press. Did this driver abandon his team in a time of need? Was he taking his role as a leader seriously? The start of the RBR experiment, a one-year loan in effect before Hendrick got his man wasn’t exactly a healer; halfway through 2011, Kahne had nearly as many DNFs (two) as top-5 finishes (three).
“It’s something new for both [Kenny Francis and I] to come over and have a one-year deal,” he said. “It takes time to get familiar with things and the people and working together.”
Even harder when, in the midst of trying to build that chemistry the team announced they were on the auction block midsummer. That should have, for all intents and purposes shut down the effectiveness of the No. 4 Toyota; you had a driver/crew chief combo looking towards the future, layoffs looming for the rest and a teammate in Brian Vickers wrecking as much as he was racing. Once the checkers flew at Richmond in September, locking out the team from Chase contention a second straight year you figured waving the white flag of surrender was at hand.
Nah; turns out this group likes the checkered so much more. All Kahne has done is snag a win, along with six top-6 finishes to score the third-most points during the Chase. The only drivers who have more? Let’s just say they’ll be fighting for a title in Homestead.
“I wouldn’t say there’s anyone out there that’s building better cars at this time,” claims Kahne, who drove a brand new one to victory Sunday. “Over the last three months, you have one of the top-five cars in NASCAR shutting down and that’s crazy.”
Note the credit to his supporting cast, in desperation mode while Kahne sits by the pool and waits for the Butler to hand him some million-dollar Hendrick keys. Perhaps that’s why this Red Bull ride, down the stretch is proving successful; Kahne doesn’t have to be a leader here. There’s so much energy coming from everyone else, survival-like determination all Kahne has to do is slide behind the wheel and drive the perfect car.
“If he was staying with that organization next year, I think we’d all be more worried,” said one of this year’s title combatants, Tony Stewart. “It’s kind of a question mark now that he’s switching to a different organization. Going to have to try to find their way over there.”
Unlike Kahne, Burton doesn’t have to worry about adjusting to a new team next year – or letting down a “lame duck” operation by leaving them. But with offseason changes looming, ones that’ll take away crew chief Luke Lambert, you’ve got to figure this veteran is also dreading starting from scratch. From the tail end of last year, when Burton fishtailed to dead last in the Chase, to this July, it’s easily been the worst stretch of the 44-year-old’s 18-year Cup career. Without a top-10 finish until Watkins Glen in August, many were confused why it was he, not Clint Bowyer, given the multi-year extension to keep driving with Richard Childress Racing.
The slump cost longtime crew chief Todd Berrier his job come the end of July. In his place came a quirky choice: first-timer, 29-year-old team engineer Luke Lambert. Stuck with the “interim” title – Bowyer’s crew chief Shane Wilson will inherit the role next season – the youngster would have seemed to be in over his head.
But as the team adjusted to a new leader, its driver also adopted a new strategy. After lying back, letting the computer geeks “do their thing” with these cars, Burton wasn’t going to sit in the shadows with his career on the line.
“I’ve gotten a little more involved in trying to understand exactly what is in the cars,” he said Sunday, ending his Phoenix run a solid fourth. “I think that does matter. That [was] really a departure for me not to be involved.”
His effort, combined with the aggressive moves of Lambert on the pit box, has paid off. In just the last month alone, the head wrench has left Burton out on old tires (Martinsville, sixth); tried to stretch his fuel tank at the finish (Texas, failed, 27th) and used a four-tire strategy Sunday during a race where the question was taking left or right sides under caution… not changing every one.
The end result has Burton, who was once outside the top 30 in points, with a reasonable shot of ending the year inside the top 20. In fact, had Lambert’s Texas gamble worked out the only teams with more points in the Chase would be Stewart, Edwards, and the aforementioned Kahne.
“When things are tough, you find out what people are made of,” said Burton. “My group has just kept digging and kept their heads up. Real proud of everybody. Nobody has quit on this team, not once. I’m real proud of that.”
The key, of course, to continued success is holding the momentum into 2012, a task that will be difficult in both cases. Kahne’s move to the No. 5 car, once a plum ride a year ago could now even be considered a step down; Martin sits 20th in points, hasn’t won since ’09 and has just two top-5 finishes on the year. As for Burton, he’s likely to lose Lambert and must deal with RCR’s downsizing from four cars to three that will cause his team to undergo major reshuffling.
“I think anytime you change, it’s going to be different,” said Kahne when asked about his upcoming switch. “We were able to test the 5 car at Charlotte. Some of the feelings and things were definitely different than what we have right now, what I’ve had in the past. So you have to figure that out.”
“It’s going to take time to be really strong – as strong as what we want to be.”
This time, both drivers are hoping the rebuilding process won’t take as long as nineteen months.