Every year, Hendrick Motorsports is labeled as one of the teams to beat going into the season. 2017 was no different.
Coming into the new season, HMS had a ton of momentum from Jimmie Johnson‘s championship run in 2016. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was coming back from a concussion, and Chase Elliott was poised to win multiple races after having a standout rookie campaign. But what about Kasey Kahne?
As the playoffs are set to begin this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, 2017 has been anything but easy for the 12-time championship winning organization. Johnson picked up a trio of victories spanning over seven races in the first half of the regular season, but since Dover International Speedway, Kahne’s win at the Brickyard 400 stands as the bright spot to an otherwise winless summer.
Overall, Kahne has had an eventful season. The No. 5 team kicked off the season with back-to-back top-10 finishes at Daytona (seventh) and Atlanta Motor Speedway (fourth). However, the next seven races were all results outside the top 10, dropping him from eighth to 20th in the championship standings.
Following a fifth-place effort at Talladega Superspeedway, Kahne went another nine races of finishing outside the top 10, six of which were also outside the top 20. Following the July race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the No. 5 team sat 22nd in the standings, absolutely needing a victory to solidify a position into the postseason.
Kahne delivered at Indy, leading 12 late laps en route to his first victory since Atlanta in 2014. He was in the playoffs, but the work was just beginning.
“The year has had some really good ups and some downs as well,” Kahne told Frontstretch regarding his season. “It was pretty neat to win at Indy. It was pretty neat to do it with my team and all the guys on the [No.] 5 car. I’m glad we’re in the playoffs, and it’s definitely had some good ups.”
Despite the win at the Brickyard, Kahne has gone another six races without a top-10 finish. Heading into the postseason, the No. 5 team has four top 10s, the same total as Earnhardt, the lone HMS driver to miss the playoffs, who sits 22nd in the standings.
At Richmond Raceway, the regular season finale, all four Hendrick cars finished in the top 13, Kahne 12th. On paper, it’s one of the best races the organization has had in some time. However, there is always room for improvement, and that’s what the No. 5 team is looking for in the playoffs.
“I think it’s always about speed and being able to go fast at every track throughout the whole race run,” Kahne said. “Sometimes, you can go fast early, sometimes late. But being able to do it throughout the whole run is a really big part of it. As a team, that’s what we’re working on. We’re working hard in those areas and want to be the best that we can possibly be and we’ll get the results off of that.”
Between four race teams, Hendrick Motorsports has 30 top-10 results, 14 coming from Elliott, who finished the regular season seventh in the overall standings. Johnson is on pace to have a career-low in top 10s, going into the playoffs with eight.
That begs the question, why is HMS down from previous seasons?
“I wouldn’t say Hendrick has been as dominant as they’ve been in the past,” Kahne admitted. “There have been years where they have been unbelievable and other years where they have been pretty good. This year, it’s probably one of those years where it’s just pretty good. The time of the season that really matter is coming up, so we could still be really, really good this year, it just depends on how the Hendrick teams do in the playoffs.”
Though Kahne failed to make the postseason in 2016, he had five top 10s in the 10-race format. He placed a season-best third at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track that has been good to the 37-year-old throughout his career.
By rule of thumb, running well throughout the playoffs would be a momentum booster for Kahne and his race team. However, he knows the No. 5 car needs that speed.
“I think that shows that we can do it,” Kahne said of running well during the final 10 races in 2016. “I know a lot of these tracks fit my driving style pretty well and things that I look for in a car we can find at some of them. It’s exciting to think about that. If we can do that and maybe do better than that, I think we can have a real good playoff.”
With three top-five finishes through the first 26 races, Kahne equaled his amount that he has posted over the past three seasons. However, with only the additional top-10 result, statistically, this could go down as the Washington native’s worst career season in the Cup Series. In both 2005 and 2007, he had eight top 10s, which is his career low.
Crew chief Keith Rodden might have to throw an ole rabbit out of the hat, much like he did at Indianapolis, pitting as a late caution flew. Regardless, Kahne believes pit strategy is going to be crucial throughout the playoffs, as it has been all season.
“I think strategy is huge at every single race and every single track,” he said. “It gets you in position early in the race and late in the race. There is so much that goes along with it with the stages. I think the teams that have done a good job at that have a great shot at doing really well in the playoffs because I think strategy means so much in NASCAR today.”
No matter how the playoffs go for Kahne, he is guaranteed to finish no worse than 16th in the championship standings in his final season with HMS. That’s better than the past two seasons, where he finished 17th and 18th, respectively.