Kasey Kahne did everything he could to continue racing in NASCAR’s premier series this year. He raced until he couldn’t do so any longer.
Twenty-five races into the 2018 season and Kahne couldn’t handle it anymore. His body could no longer handle the wear and tear that comes with 400- to 500-mile races. When he exited his No. 95 machine at Darlington Speedway in September, the fatigue hit him unlike anything he’s ever experienced, leading to this announcement:
— Kasey Kahne (@kaseykahne) October 9, 2018
Kahne previously announced he would retire at season’s end, but the premature exit wasn’t one he or anyone close to him expected.
The 38-year-old entered his 15th full-time season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this year, but the situation he entered was a new challenge. Kahne signed with Leavine Family Racing after being let go from Hendrick Motorsports after the 2017 season in favor of rookie William Byron, who came at a much cheaper price, brought sponsorship and had a world of potential.
The expectations were for Kahne to improve LFR, all while possibly sneaking into the playoffs like he did in 2017, when he won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to end a two-year winless drought.
But the struggles were inevitable. It took 10 races for the No. 95 team to earn its first lead-lap finish.
Kahne and crew chief Travis Mack weren’t clicking, even though the team seemed to be solid at first — finishing 21st at Atlanta Motor Speedway and 19th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
But three straight 24th-place finishes put the team back. Kahne wasn’t adjusting like he had expected. He wanted to uplift this team and make it a competitor.
Through those first 10 races, Kahne had three top-20 finishes, with a best result of 17th at both Texas Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
When the Coca-Cola 600 came, momentum had been slowly building for LFR. Kahne had three-straight finishes of 21st or better. And that continued at Charlotte Motor Speedway for NASCAR’s longest race.
Kahne finished only one lap down at Charlotte, earning a 20th-place run. While it doesn’t sound like much, it was for this small team attempting to grow. It was the best streak of Kahne’s final Cup season.
But a change was needed. Out of the crew chief role was Mack and in was Jon Leonard. The pair started off their tenure together with a respectable top-20 run at Sonoma Raceway. And things got just a bit better two races later.
Kahne’s brightest spot of the year was at Daytona International Speedway, one of NASCAR’s equalizers thanks to restrictor plates. The No. 95 car was at the front of the pack for the majority of the 400-miler — it looked like the Kahne of old.
He led 17 laps late in the final stage and had the potential to steal a win away and bring the team into the playoffs. But with two late-race cautions, Kahne slipped back to finish fourth, tying an LFR record.
Kahne didn’t know it at the time, but he had only seven races left in his Cup career.
It seemed like things were improving. Kahne qualified in the top 10 at Watkins Glen International, his lone top-10 start in 2018. While he didn’t maintain a top-10 position, finishing 21st, it was a big improvement for a team that struggled with qualifying. He only had two top-20 starts prior to Watkins Glen.
Kahne’s penultimate race came at Bristol Motor Speedway, a track he won at in 2013. In his last year with Hendrick Motorsports, Bristol was brutal to Kahne, failing to finish on the lead lap in either race.
But that wasn’t the case in 2018. He did exactly what he needed to do at the half-mile, staying out of trouble and utilizing the lack of horsepower needed at Bristol in order to stay competitive. When the checkered flag flew, the No. 95 car was 15th on the pylon and on the lead lap.
Kahne gave it his all that night — he would have one more race left in him.
The Bojanges’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway turned out to be a nightmare for Kahne. Dehydration took control of his body on a long, hot night in South Carolina. The conditions were treacherous. It turned out he had been experiencing the same issue for over a year. But this was the last straw.
His body could handle no more. Kahne was puking after the race, stating that he shouldn’t have stayed in the car with 100 laps to go in the 367-lap race. At one point, he wasn’t even able to focus because of blurry vision and nausea.
“I just can’t control the temperature of my body and my heart rate,” Kahne said. “Once it gets to that point, there’s nothing I can do until I get out of the car.”
That was the last we would see of Kahne in a Cup race.
He attempted to make a comeback for a retirement tour during the final few races of the season. But after a test at Charlotte, doctors deemed that would not happen. Regan Smith closed out the year for LFR, who made sure Kahne would not be forgotten.
— Kasey Kahne (@kaseykahne) November 11, 2018
Kahne now turns his focus to his family and his sprint car team. He will still be seen at sprint car races across America since his body can handle the shorter events.
He didn’t make LFR a competitor, but Kahne did put the team in the spotlight just from his name alone. And that spotlight led to the team’s best alliance yet, pairing with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota for 2019 and beyond.
Kahne’s NASCAR career is a memorable one. He drove for some of the sport’s greats: Robert Yates, Ray Evernham, Richard Petty and Rick Hendrick.
He earned 18 career wins in NASCAR’s premier division, along with 27 pole awards. Kahne’s five multi-win seasons make him one of the most successful drivers over the past two decades.
However, NASCAR did not recognize him during the driver’s meeting at Homestead-Miami Speedway when the sanctioning body usually thanks retiring drivers for their time in the sport. The sport failed to do so again during the Las Vegas awards banquet, and that is a darn shame.
Kahne will be remembered for his true dedication to the sport. He stuck with owners through thick and thin. He made the most out of times with smaller teams Red Bull Racing and LFR.
Hopefully, we will see more of Kahne in the future, not just as a sprint car driver, but as a commentator as well. His knowledge of the sport is exceptional, and his popularity will only elevate any potential move he could make with one of the weekly NASCAR shows.
25 starts, zero wins, one top five, one top 10, zero poles
Best Finish: fourth (Daytona)
Point Standings: 30th
Season Grade: C