When Kasey Kahne hopped over to Hendrick Motorsports at the beginning of the 2012 season, it was supposed to be a career-defining change. However, the last five seasons have been anything but perfect.
Kahne, 36, is in currently his 13th full-time season. Statically, 2016 has been one of his worst seasons with few answers.
Through 22 events, the No. 5 car has two top-5 finishes and only six top 10s. However, it isn’t just Kahne that has struggled this season. As a whole, Hendrick Motorsports is having one of its worst years in recent memory with only two wins by Jimmie Johnson, coming in the first five races.
Kahne has yet to lead a single lap in 2016. His previous career-low in laps led came last season when he paced the field for 66 circuits, 29 of them at the first Martinsville race last April.
With four races to go before NASCAR’s edition of the playoffs begin at Chicagoland, Kahne is hoping to see the light of the tunnel, refusing to give up on the season.
“I think that our season is nowhere near where we want it,” Kahne told Frontstetch in an exclusive interview. “We put a lot of effort and a lot time in, and we’ve missed it on certain days and have done a much better job on other days. It’s tough. There’s a lot of hard work that’s gone into it. We’ll eventually get it and be where we want to be and win some races”
Winning a race is something Kahne hasn’t done since Labor Day weekend of 2014, when he had a walk-off win, clinching a spot in the Chase at Atlanta Motor Speedway. However, that’s his only win in the last 109 Sprint Cup races, dating back to Pocono in August of 2013.
With Chris Buescher winning at Pocono two weeks ago, sitting just three points outside the top 30 in the championship standings, it decreases the No. 5 team’s chances of making the Chase. Heading into the off week, Kahne sits 17th in the overall standings, 18th on the Chase grid, 11 points behind Kyle Larson. But if and when the No. 34 car makes it into the top 30 in points, he then has to gain an additional 30 markers on Jamie McMurray.
But the unexpected win from Buescher is something that is expected in the current Chase format. Anything can and will happen.
“I don’t think it really changes my approach,” Kahne said of Buescher’s triumph. “That stuff can happen. He won because of fog. Other things can happen like fuel mileage and strategy and you can have different winners that didn’t have the fastest car that day or nowhere near the fastest car. That’s just part of NASCAR and racing in general.”
As an organization, Hendrick Motorsports’ top gun is currently sitting 10th in the standings. While Chase Elliott got off to a hot start, he’s struggled since Michigan with an average finish of 25.6 in the last seven races. Kahne has just been added to the midst of struggling HMS drivers.
“There’s so much that goes into it and we are trying to work hard in all of those areas and communication, momentum and confidence are all a part of it,” Kahne said. “That’s stuff that we are always working on and trying to make better. Preparation is big. We need to have smooth weekends and no hiccups with the racecar itself in any areas all that stuff counts.
“We have to do a better job in all of those areas and as a driver, I need to keep putting in everything I can and staying positive, that’s something that I lack a lot of the time.”
Over the course of the entire season, there has been a lot of argument over Kahne’s team radio with crew chief Keith Rodden. The duo have worked together in the past as a driver and engineer, but last season team owner Rick Hendrick went in the route of placing Rodden as crew chief, replacing long-time leader Kenny Francis.
In 58 races together, Kahne and Rodden have five top-5 finishes, including 16 top 10s. Comparing that to Francis’ first two years with the driver, they combined for six wins, all coming in 2006 which was a career-high and 21 top-10 finishes.
So far, the chemistry has yet to click for Kahne and Rodden.
“I actually think that we’ve struggled a good bit for a while,” Kahne said of his crew chief. “Over the last few weeks, we’ve been much closer and much more behind each other. We’re working together better and communicating and listening to each other, understanding each other. I feel like it’s been better, but there have been a lot of times that we’ve struggled together.”
Kahne admitted that the way the two crew chiefs run their race team is completely different, which has been hard for him to adapt to as he had Francis leading the way for nine seasons, dating back to when they worked together at Evernham Motorsports.
The Washington native has been most successful when he is happy inside the racecar. Prior to the 2016 season, Kahne made that one of his goals for the year. But, with the struggles of Hendrick Motorsports, specifically the No. 5 car, it has been hard for him to turn the frown upside down.
“I think at times, but it’s hard to be when you’re not as competitive as you want to be,” Kahne said. “We have to keep working on that. When our speed is back, I’ll be happy. I think when we have speed it’s easy to be happy. When we don’t, it’s not easy.”
The area that Kahne feels he needs to work on the most is getting the car in race conditions during practice. Every minute that passes in each session, is a minute less spent on the track going in the right direction. Once he sees the performance improve, he feels the confidence within the race team go up.
Though HMS has struggled this season, they have the winningest car owner in NASCAR history leading the ship in Hendrick. That’s the most important thing that Kahne believes the organization has.
“He’s not happy with any of our performance, especially the No. 5 car, but he’s not happy with any of it,” Kahne said of Hendrick. “We know who we have behind us and it will turn eventually. I think we have a lot of strengths with a great team. When things are good they are comparable with any team. We just have to make sure that they are good and right and the momentum is rolling.”
In the four tracks before the Chase, Kahne has won at three of them, including his first career win at Richmond in 2005, and recorded a fourth-place finish in April. He won at Michigan a decade ago, and since joining HMS has checked Bristol of his bucket list. The only track that remains in Darlington, a place that his average finish is 15.8, recording four poles.
About the author
Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.
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