After competing the past six seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, Kasey Kahne took a step back and moved to a smaller team for 2018: Leavine Family Racing. The hope was that his arrival would spark the No. 95 group and increase their performance across the board.
But since the season-opening Daytona 500, it’s been an up-and-down year for Kahne. He sits 27th in the championship standings, needing a win to secure a spot in this year’s playoffs.
As a race team, LFR has been going through changes of its own. Following the race at Michigan International Speedway in early June, team owner Bob Leavine decided to swap crew chiefs, giving Jon Leonard the role over Travis Mack. Since then, Kahne earned a season-best fourth-place finish at Daytona last month after leading 17 laps.
Last weekend at Pocono Raceway, Kahne sat down with Frontstretch to discuss how he’s adapted to LFR, how the opportunity compares to other small teams he’s been a part of in the past, 2019 plans and much more.
Dustin Albino, Frontstretch: You made the transition over to Leavine Family Racing this season. Overall, how has that process been 20 races in?
Kasey Kahne: The transition has been good, pretty easy. They have a good group of guys that from the ownership down want to improve, want to work together and want to get better. I feel like we’ve been doing that. We definitely want better results at all times, everybody does. We’re working in a good direction, and hopefully, it’s a direction we can continue going in and building on for the future.
Albino: Has it been what you thought it would be, or even more challenging?
Kahne: I’d say it’s been a little bit more challenging at times than I expected. With a crew chief change earlier in the year that the team made, that made it a little bit more challenging again and having to get that communication down with Jon [Leonard]. We’re doing that and we’re all working hard on it, but there are times where we’re definitely not on the same page on stuff, and that’s just from lack of working together. All of that will get better as it goes. It’s been a little tougher at times than expected, but there have been other times that it’s been pretty good. I like that.
Albino: How hard is it to build chemistry with a new crew chief in the middle of the season?
Kahne: It takes time. When you’re also always trying to make your cars and everything better, trying to grow and improve, and build those relationships at the same time, those communication lines – it just takes time. The more we do it, the better we will get. That’s pretty normal for anything, but we want to perform on race day and sometimes I feel like it’s taking a little longer than we want at certain tracks. That’s part of it, what we signed up for. We’re enjoying it, we just want to get better all the time.
Albino: How much of a confidence boost was the top-five finish at Daytona?
Kahne: It was great to do that. A fourth place [finish] is awesome, and if we could do that at other tracks it would be really awesome. But at Daytona, I felt like we had a car capable of winning, and we didn’t win, so that was a bit of a letdown at the same time for the whole group.
Albino: How hard has it been not having a teammate this season?
Kahne: It’s a little different. I wouldn’t say it’s hard not to [have teammates], but it’s a little different. Especially with where I was before this at Hendrick [Motorsports] and having three teammates, so there’s always so much information and everyone is giving it from a driver’s perspective and now you don’t have that at all. It’s a little different. I’m good with it and I think we can perform just as well with one team as long as we keep improving in all the right areas.
Albino: Can receiving too much information hurt a driver?
Kahne: Yeah, if you don’t use it in the right areas and try to change too many things, or lean too much on somebody else setup-wise, car-wise, driving-wise, all those little things. It can definitely hurt. Just trying to understand the information the best way and not overuse it can definitely get you in trouble.
Albino: You recently mentioned racing in 2011 with Red Bull was one of your favorite years of competing in NASCAR. Could you elaborate on why that was so fun?
Kahne: I just always enjoyed it because my team was pretty much the same from what I had at Evernham [Motorsports], and then it went to Gillett’s and Petty’s, and then there was a lot of confusion for a couple of years.
Then we went to Red Bull with that same team, and just the way the Red Bull deal was ran, it was just a fun year. We worked hard to get better and improve, and we were able to do that throughout the entire year. We went from being an OK car at the start of the year to the third-best car at the end of the year, and just off Carl [Edwards] and Tony [Stewart], who were the two best and in a league of their own. They were unbelievable at the end of that year and we were just off of them. To me, that was really cool to be a part of that team and the Red Bull [No.] 4 car from where it started to where it ended in one season. I was only a part of that one season, and I loved every bit of it.
Albino: How does your opportunity with Leavine Family Racing this year compare to the Red Bull ride in 2011?
Kahne: It’s so much different with all that was to how it is today. The one thing is being a little bit of a smaller group and smaller team, that stuff is pretty similar. The work we need to do to, where we want to be, those types of things would be similar. At Red Bull, it was the team I had been with, so it’s not like this year at all. We just kind of moved that team over and they bought into it and it was really cool.
Albino: Where do you think the No. 95 team has been at its best this season?
Kahne: Restrictor plate tracks, short tracks and road courses have been our strong points. After that, just any one track could be our next best, we just have to hit on it that weekend. It’s tough because it’s such a fine-tuning thing, and the Chevy car is not the best out there. We’re always a little behind there. We’re always a little behind starting out, and then we’re always trying to build the best package we can and sometimes we get behind on that, and that’s all just communication, working together and growing as a group.
It’s tough, but those tracks that I named have been our best ones this year and we still hit some of those before the year is over. I think we can do well at all of them.
Albino: So you’re probably excited for Watkins Glen?
Kahne: Yeah, Watkins Glen and then Bristol are coming up. Any track we go to for a second time we’re going to be better because we learned from the first. We go back to Talladega. I feel like we had a top-five car in Bristol and we had a mechanical failure, so we were out of that one. At Dover, we were pretty strong. There’s some tracks that we are going back to that I’m looking forward to.
Albino: After coming from a big team, now racing for a small team, do you put more of an incentive on being the team leader?
Kahne: I feel like for myself, I’ve never had a big leadership role that gets everybody pumped up. I feel like the only way I’ve ever led is just off of working hard and trying to win races and trying to get the group to think in the same direction more than anything and the direction that we’re going to head.
I’ve been proud and glad to be a part of that at LFR and working with everyone, showing my respect for everything they do, because we have guys that are non-stop trying to get our stuff better. That’s how I thank them and I’m just trying to show them I respect everything that they do. I try to work hard on the track so I can show I’m doing my job as well.
Albino: Is that kind of how it’s always been for you?
Kahne: That’s how I’ve always kind of been. I do it more off respect than some of the way other leaders may do it over the years. I think the crew chief has a big role in that as well and getting everybody pointed in the right direction. If the crew chief and driver can be on the same page and the driver is all behind it, then you start going places.
Albino: Do you know what your plans are for 2019?
Kahne: I don’t know about next year, but I’ve enjoyed this year. I want to run better, but so does everybody on my team. To me, we’re going to only be better the longer we do it together and I think there’s a lot of potential at LFR. I can see myself racing at LFR for a while.
Albino: How does going deep into a season not knowing next year’s plans change your mindset?
Kahne: I pretty much got fired at Watkins Glen and had to figure it out after that. It’s like a year ago just about.
I think that there will be the opportunity with the team I’m with and that would be the right opportunity for me if we can make it all work. I’m just interested in figuring all that out and going from there.