Moved to the hot seat.
2016 season was one of Kasey Kahne‘s toughest seasons of his 13-year NASCAR career. To start, he was coming off a 2015 season in which he led a career-low 66 laps. That number, however, was higher than this year’s total of zero, which was the amount of times the No. 5 car was out front.
If it weren’t for a late season surge, 2016 likely would have been Kahne’s worst season. But beginning with two races prior to the Chase, the No. 5 team stepped up its game, en route to four consecutive top-10 finishes.
In the Chase, Kahne had five top 10s, more than seven of the original Chase contenders, including Championship 4 driver Carl Edwards. Even with those finishes, consistency was hard to come by for the No. 5 team.
“I think that our season is nowhere near where we want it,” Kahne said to Frontstretch in August. “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. I wouldn’t assess it great by no means and definitely not where we want it by no means. 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.”
Kahne had 10 finishes outside of the top 20, compared to his three top fives, including a season-best third at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October. Coming up short of victory lane, is not what the No. 5 team, nor what Rick Hendrick wanted, and it was the second consecutive season that the team failed to win a race, the first time that has happened in his career.
Halfway through the regular season, Kahne was as far back as 20th in the championship standings. By the end of the season, he climbed the standings to finish 17th, the best of the drivers who failed to make the Chase.
Kahne’s average finished improved to 15.6 from 18.1 in 2015, and it’s his second best average finish since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. He had two DNFs, tied for the lowest of his Cup Series career, the other coming with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009.
Moving into 2017, the goal is to take the next step as a race team, though there is still a lot to do.
“We need to have smooth weekends and no hiccups with the racecar itself in any areas all that stuff counts,” Kahne said. “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. I get down. I think staying positive and understand that everybody is working hard even if it doesn’t look that way at times, I know we are.”
Prior to the Chase, one of the headlines of the NASCAR season was the struggle of Hendrick Motorsports. 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Chase Elliott finished the season with 17 top-10 finishes. The No. 88 car was split between Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman after Dale Earnhardt, Jr. missed the second half of the season. Through the first 29 races, eventual series champion Jimmie Johnson had a pair of victories, the only triumphs for the organization.
The struggle was real for Hendrick Motorsports, particularly Kahne.
2017 will be a pivotal year for Kahne and could serve as his most important season of his Cup Series career. Going win-less and not making the Chase in each of the past two seasons has put the 36-year-old on the hot seat, specifically because it’s a contract year.
In August, Hendrick Motorsports signed 19-year-old William Byron to compete full-time in the XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports in 2017. His stock went up after winning seven Camping World Truck Series races, a rookie series record.
With the lack of success of the No. 5 team, it would be easy to point to Kahne as the driver who is on his way out, making room for Byron. However, Earnhardt is in a contract season as well.
Keith Rodden will return as Kahne’s crew chief for the third consecutive season. It will be crucial for the duo to get off to a quick start and securing a spot into the Chase.