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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Up to Speed: A Long Way from 2006

After a week of mostly bad news for both drivers, Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne are at a crossroads.

The announcement Furniture Row Racing would disband at the end of this season has thrown serious complications into Truex’s quest to win a second straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.  Chances are that Truex will be fine in the long term.  He and crew chief Cole Pearn are rumored to be heading to Joe Gibbs Racing.  But for other employees of FRR, the specter of having to find a new job will be a major distraction as they try to stay focused on winning the title.

Meanwhile, Kahne already announced that this season would be his last racing full-time in NASCAR.  Yet he is out of the car for this weekend’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and possibly longer.  During the Southern 500 a week ago, Kahne experienced a form of severe, rapid dehydration and required medical attention after completing the race.  On Friday (Sept. 8), Kahne explained that he has been dealing with similar dehydration issues for some time. He is staying on the sidelines until his team of doctors come up with a solution.

Adversity is nothing new for either driver.  Truex and Kahne have both faced major challenges in their NASCAR careers.  They both know what it is like to feel the weight of expectations on their shoulders.  But they have also experienced the joy of exceeding them.

For Kahne, no season will ever compare to 2006.  In his third season in the Cup Series, driving Ray Evernham’s No. 9 Dodge, Kahne stormed to six wins and the first postseason appearance of his then-young career.  All six victories came at unrestricted, fast intermediate speedways, where the No. 9 team was unquestionably at its best.  As Kahne reeled off wins in Atlanta, Texas and Charlotte, each trip to Victory Lane felt like fulfillment of the promise he had shown in his first two years.

Heading into 2006, Kahne had one Cup Series win to his name, but he had come agonizingly close to winning several more times.  If the 2004 and 2005 seasons were about everything going wrong for Kahne, 2006 seemed to be about what he could do when everything went right.

The trouble was that the wins masked a lot of other things that did go wrong for the No. 9 team.  For instance, Kahne entered the last race of the regular season below the Chase cutoff, despite already having five of the six wins.  As fast as the No. 9 was, consistency eluded them.

For instance, Kahne was third in points after securing his fourth victory of the season, but he followed it up with three consecutive finishes outside the top 20.  One month later, another run of poor race results dropped him out of the top 10 in points completely.  Kahne managed to salvage his championship hopes with a win at Fontana on Labor Day weekend, followed by a third-place run at Richmond Raceway which allowed him to squeak into the Chase by 16 points.  But a bad start to the postseason effectively took Kahne out of title contention.  Even with another win at Charlotte, he could only manage eighth in the final point standings.

Truex, meanwhile, was a rookie in 2006, but he was already drawing a lot of attention.  In two full seasons of what was then called the Busch Series, Truex had won the championship both times and had earned six wins each season.  Now, he was taking a seat at Dale Earnhardt Inc. alongside his mentor and Busch Series team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Earnhardt himself had struggled through a lackluster 2005 season, but he and Truex were supposed to be the dynamic duo that put DEI on the path to success for years to come.

If Kahne was the breakout star in 2006 who seemed to be fulfilling expectations, Truex was the opposite – the highly-touted rookie who did not live up to the hype.  He finished 19th in points, which is not bad for a rookie, and in fact one spot better than Kyle Busch wound up in points the previous year during his freshman season.  But Truex was not running up front and challenging for wins very often, or even at all.

It took Truex 30 races into the season to get his first top-five finish, one of only two the whole year.  He spent most of the season outside the top 20 in points. In fact, he did not lead more than three laps in any race until the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he led 27 and finished second.  Besides the strong showing at Homestead, the only real memorable moment of Truex’s season was when Jeff Gordon punted the rookie at Bristol for holding him up.

The expectation was that Truex would have a rookie season more similar to those of Tony Stewart’s, Kevin Harvick’s, or Ryan Newman’s.  While that level of success is tough to place on any driver, it did not help Truex’s case that fellow freshman Denny Hamlin did have a great season.  On the strength of two wins and a third-place finish in points, Hamlin cruised to the Rookie of the Year title.  Truex also got beat in the rookie standings by Clint Bowyer, who had more traditional first-year results but still earned four top fives and 11 top 10s. That’s compared to two and five for Truex.

Looking back on 2006, it would have been easy to peg Kahne as a future champion.  It would have natural to wonder if Truex would ever live up to the hype.  It would have been very easy to dismiss Barney Visser’s single-car team, which attempted most of the Cup Series races in 2006 but failed to qualify almost half the time.  From the perspective of a dozen years ago, it is shocking that it was Truex, not Kahne, who became a champion, not to mention the rise of FRR.

Truex, to be fair, fought through several more seasons of mid-pack performance.  When he lost his sponsor and his ride as a result of Michael Waltrip Racing’s race manipulation controversy, his career seemingly took a blow from which it could not recover.  But Truex and the No. 78 team found a way for the driver to live up to all those lofty expectations from a dozen years ago.

Unfortunately, it looks like Kahne will not get to fulfill his championship dreams.  It seemed like only a matter of time in 2006 before he would get one.  But Evernham Motorsports’ turbulent final years and eventual transition into Richard Petty Motorsports only magnified Kahne’s struggles with consistency.  His six seasons at Hendrick Motorsports may have yielded six wins.  But Kahne never became the kind of yearly championship contender so many people expected him to become.

Now, his streak of 529 consecutive starts in the Cup Series has come to an end.  Kahne’s top priority right now should be his health, although it is unsettling to think that a medical issue might have caused an immediate and unceremonious end to his whole career.

It is a shame that we are seeing the last of Furniture Row Racing.  Hopefully, we have not seen the last of Kasey Kahne.

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About Bryan Gable

Bryan Gable
Bryan returns to Frontstretch in 2018 for his third season. As a longtime race fan, he brings 20 years of insight and passion to his motorsports analysis. Bryan is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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