Race Weekend Central

2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Kasey Kahne

Kasey Kahne

2011 Ride: No. 4 Red Bull Toyota
2011 Primary Sponsor: Red Bull Energy Drink
2011 Owner: Dietrich Mateschitz
2011 Crew Chief: Kenny Francis
2011 Stats: 36 starts, 1 win, 8 top fives, 15 top 10s, 4 DNFs, 2 poles, 14th in points

High Point: It was the Carl and Tony show heading into the desert at Phoenix, and much was made about the new configuration and fresh asphalt which had yet to fully cure and settle after just a few months of baking in the Arizona sun. It has been said there is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing left to lose; multiply that across a much-maligned race team that saw its funding and foundation pulled out from under it just as they were starting to hit their stride, and you have a formula for success out of passion, professionalism – and just maybe tinged with spite.

Five front-row appearances, including poles at Darlington and Atlanta were proof that Red Bull could be fast in something other than Formula 1 or airplane racing. In fact, 2011 was Kahne’s best season statistically since 2006, when he won six races and ended the year eighth in points.

Kahne also led 124 laps in the Southern 500 before scrubbing the wall and falling back to fourth place at the finish. But a win at Phoenix in November was a fitting parting gift, a well-earned reward for the men who toiled and waited patiently for the phone to ring with news of a buyer for the team that never came.

Low Point: When word came down that Red Bull Racing was up for sale and soliciting investors, it came early enough in the year that surely somebody would want to buy into the upstart team. Built with the leadership foundation which was formerly MB2/MBV Motorsports and Ginn Racing, led by Team Manager Jay Frye and Crew Chief Ryan Pemberton, it took Red Bull a few years to finally get its feet planted with the right combination of driver, cars and most importantly owner points.

But while there was much talk of new ownership, and the potential that Red Bull would remain as just a sponsor, nothing materialized during the summer months, and the team that was always on the verge of breaking through was suddenly broke.

Summary: Even while knowing before the season even started that the pairing of Kahne and Red Bull would be over by year’s end, it came as a shock when by midseason it was made known that Team Red Bull was on the block. But that did not deter the No. 4 team, which continued to battle, scrap and fight late into the season, becoming one of the most consistent and formidable teams down the stretch. During the 10-race Chase, the No. 4 Red Bull team finished worse then seventh on just three occasions. Had Kahne qualified for the Chase, he would have ended up third in the final championship standings.

It’s stats like those that make the ending – this team is now officially closed, their equipment ready to be auctioned off – that much harder to swallow. It’s particularly rough for the crew members and employees, all of whom poured their heart and soul into the operation in desperate hopes of keeping things afloat. That they are no more is an absolute shame and speaks to the shaky state of our sport like nothing else could.

Team Ranking: The No. 4 Toyota Camry was the polar opposite of the No. 83 Red Bull team. While Brian Vickers car often resembled something out of the Twisted Metal franchise of video games, Kahne’s car was the sharp scalpel of the upstart Toyota, which five seasons earlier showed up with two cars, no points and a dream of breaking into stock car racing with a new owner, new sponsor and new manufacturer.

As quickly as they came, they were gone, but Kahne gave one final flurry of fantastic finishes as their parting shot. With a win in the penultimate race of the 2011 season, two weeks before the entire team would disband Kahne’s perseverance was part of an impressive Chase surge – seven top 10s in 10 races – that left him 14th in the final standings, well ahead of Vickers’s 25th.

2012 Outlook: For Kahne, the future has gotten markedly brighter – at least at first glance. He will be taking over the reins of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, vacated by Mark Martin, who resurrected his career in 2009 with five wins and was the only contender to Jimmie Johnson for his fourth consecutive championship. Kahne will be bringing longtime crew chief Kenny Francis with him to HMS and will not have to suffer the same sleds that Martin had to his final year in the No. 5 car.

On the other hand, Kahne will be among the biggest names in the sport, teammates who combine for nine Sprint Cup championships and nine Most Popular Driver in the Universe awards. It is a bit ironic, though. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been much maligned for having not won in quite some time, yet has six more wins than Kahne, including a Daytona 500 victory. Perhaps they are just easier on guys from places called Enumclaw?

Only time will tell where Kahne falls in the pecking order at HMS, but it’ll be a little harder to be top dog in this town. Might Red Bull have finally found the right driver and team combination to become consistently competitive right before pulling the plug?

Little Known Fact: It can be neither confirmed nor denied that Kahne’s teammate Vickers was simply trying to liquidate all of the excess inventory at Red Bull Racing by destroying as many cars remaining in inventory at the end of the season in an effort to tighten up the balance sheet and make the organization more attractive to potential investors. Whatever the motivation, he succeeded.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B
2007 Grade: D
2008 Grade: C+
2009 Grade: B+
2010 Grade: C
2011 Grade: B+

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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