Did You Notice?… Kasey Kahne’s legacy will be one of unfulfilled potential, falling just short of the NASCAR Hall of Fame? The 38-year-old officially retired Tuesday (Oct. 9) due to dehydration issues he suffered inside the car during September’s Southern 500. It speeds up a process that would have happened at the end of November, as Kahne would have had just a handful more starts driving the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet.
The Washington native will go down as one of the most coveted drivers in NASCAR history. His career started with a 2004 leap to Dodge that had Ford suing for breach of contract. Bill Elliott’s replacement kept his popularity and won Rookie of the Year on the strength of nine top-five finishes and two poles. 11th in points, he was the best driver not to make the playoffs but, in a foreshadowing of what was to come, crashed in the regular season finale to miss the Chase.
That was the theme of Kahne’s career: missed opportunities. He drove six more years for Ray Evernham’s team, winning a career-best six races in 2006, but never seriously contending for the title. In fact, during the final 12 years of his career, he never won more than two races in a season. The driver remained popular, filming hilarious commercials for sponsors like Allstate, but couldn’t maintain that consistency on the racetrack.
Kahne then moved to Team Red Bull’s Toyota outfit for a year before joining one of the sport’s top organizations in Hendrick Motorsports. But from 2012-17, he won just six races and finished inside the top 10 in points only once. His tenure there was generally viewed as a struggle and ended with an early release on his contract. Kahne then spent this year driving for LFR, a low middle-class team in the worst equipment of his Cup career. Earning just one top-10 finish in 25 starts, it was a mere footnote on a nearly 20-year NASCAR resume that screams “what might have been.”
We can debate the merits of Kahne’s career but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who believes he’s a Hall of Famer. That’s an important distinction because, despite the impression he’s a level below that, the stat line is still pretty impressive. Kahne won 18 times at the Cup level, including the 2017 Brickyard 400. He also earned three Coca-Cola 600 wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, still considered one of NASCAR’s crown jewels. 27 pole positions match current Hall of Famer Terry Labonte and are seven more than Matt Kenseth (20).
Only two drivers are in the NASCAR Hall with fewer wins than Kahne: Alan Kulwicki (five, inducted this coming January) and Red Byron (two). But both men had extenuating circumstances: Byron was the first NASCAR Cup champion in 1949 and Kulwicki won as owner/driver in 1992 before dying in a plane crash the following year.
Still, Kahne sits in a group of drivers that are right on the cutoff for NASCAR Hall of Fame consideration. Here are the Hall of Fame eligible drivers with the most wins who still haven’t made the cut. (Keep in mind guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards retired too recently to be considered.)
Most NASCAR Wins Among Retired Drivers NOT In The Hall of Fame (Plus Kahne)
Jim Paschal: 25
Ricky Rudd: 23 (Nominated)
Jeff Burton: 21
Bobby Labonte: 21 (Nominated)
Jack Smith: 21
Speedy Thompson: 20
Buddy Baker: 19 (Nominated)
Fonty Flock: 19
Geoffrey Bodine: 18
Neil Bonnett: 18
Harry Gant: 18 (Nominated)
Kasey Kahne: 18
With that in mind, a decade into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, we’re beginning to see some criteria take shape. 20 wins are about enough to get you a chance at a nomination. From there, if you’re in the 20-25 range, it’s about the quality of those victories. Were they in NASCAR’s crown jewel races? Did you win a championship? Did you contribute to the sport in another way? (Benny Parsons, who won 21 races, probably got over the hump because of his 1973 title and subsequent broadcasting career.)
Kahne’s resume is most directly comparable to Ricky Rudd. Both men had a specialty they excelled at; for Kahne, it was 1.5-mile ovals while Rudd was a road course ace. They both have a Brickyard 400 win to their credit; they each drove for Hendrick and other top-tier car owners. Rudd’s 29 poles and 16.5 average finish are only marginally better (Kahne’s average is 17.7).
Where Rudd had a true edge, one that probably results in the nomination, is his ability to compete for championships. He finished runner-up to Dale Earnhardt in 1991 and nearly won the title a decade later, Jeff Gordon’s main competition in 2001. That may get him in eventually, although Rudd has had a limited role in the sport since leaving it.
The other drivers in that realm who got nominated also had their own niches. Harry Gant is known as Mr. September, a man who won four NASCAR Cup races in a row in his early 50s. Buddy Baker was a master on the sport’s superspeedways, ran limited schedules for most of his career (making the win total more impressive) and has a Daytona 500 win to his credit. Bobby Labonte won the 2000 Cup championship to make up for a spotty second half of his career.
Others, like Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr., will keep adding to their accomplishments post-driving with their broadcasting expertise. The committee appears to be looking at these add-ons, almost like smart kids trying to separate themselves applying to an Ivy League school. In this range, what makes you unique? Unfortunately for Kahne and Rudd, those answers are rather limited.
The bottom line is Kahne’s resume may be a baseline for what you have to surpass to get into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s a fitting end for a solid driver who, despite all his accomplishments, always seemed to leave us wanting more.
Did You Notice? … Stage points could allow for minimal damage at Talladega? Considering NASCAR’s Big Three already have a monumental edge on the field, it’s hard to see even a Big One swallowing their title hopes. Kevin Harvick alone sits 68 points in front of ninth place with two races to go.
Harvick kept his lead and then some despite a crucial mistake at Dover that ruined a dominating performance. But while an extra pit stop left him sixth at the finish, he still scored more points than anyone else in the field (51). That’s on the strength of two stage victories which provided a nice 20-point cushion in case of problems.
Let’s say Harvick does the same at Talladega before getting wrecked in the Big One and dropping to 36th. He’d still score 21 points, limiting the damage. The most a winner could score in that scenario is 58, producing a 37-point gain on Harvick. In that scenario, the most second place could score is 51 (a 30-point gain). Playing it out even further, third would max out at 49 (a 28-point gain).
A lot of fans like the stage points protection so that one ugly wreck doesn’t ruin a season’s worth of quality performances that should get a driver to Homestead. But it also limits the ability of drivers to move up during the playoff chase. Alex Bowman is a great example. His 28th-place finish has left him 34 points behind the cutoff and with little room for error. Bowman is probably a win or bust candidate from this point forward. Ditto for Aric Almirola, sitting 10 points behind eighth place after a win-turned-13th-place finish at Dover.
Apply Bowman’s Dover result to Harvick, though, and he would still be safely in title contention. He’d lose 22 points but still be a healthy 46 in front of the field, showcasing just how important success in the regular season has become under this format. Underdogs like Almirola and Bowman start down 28-0 in the third quarter and need a lot of things to go right for them to ride the wave to Homestead. I think that protection is good for the sport but it might also decrease the drama a bit going forward. We’ll see.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Silly Season dominos are playing out but I find it interesting the Kurt Busch/Stewart-Haas Racing/Chip Ganassi Racing saga remains unsolved. Meanwhile, Christopher Bell keeps winning in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and there’s no room at the inn for him with Toyota in the Cup Series. Plus, Jamie McMurray has not made an official announcement on if he’ll keep racing. The longer it all drags out, the more it bears watching.
- They weren’t supposed to win, on paper, in either case. But for the first time in their careers, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott have won back-to-back races in the Cup Series. The youth movement took seven months to kick into gear but it’s… here? I guess?
- Wendell Chavous is the latest NASCAR driver to step away from the sport due to reasons unrelated to money, ride security or on-track performance. His exit steps up the retirements to over half-a-dozen within the sport’s top three series for 2019 and more will be coming. Where will the new drivers come from and will the rules scare them away? I still feel like a package that’s less in the driver’s hands won’t matter in NASCAR because it’s all about off-track personality as much as on-track performance. But when have you ever heard of a sport where the participants suddenly don’t want to play?