Facing an uncertain future, Kahne makes big statement with Indy win

While it may be lonely at the top, being the fourth driver in NASCAR’s top organization might be the loneliest place of all.

Facing an uncertain future, Kahne makes big statement with Indy win
Race winner Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet takes the checkered flag
Race winner Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Race winner Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Race winner Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Race winner Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Race winner Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Race winner Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet; Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet; Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet takes the checkered flag
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Ever since Hendrick Motorsports expanded to three cars, and then four, there has always been that one driver on the outside looking in. On any other team, that racer might be the alpha driver. But when surrounded by superstars such as Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, winning a race isn’t enough to feel accepted into that elite fraternity.

Just ask Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy.

“You just kind of feel like you're out on your own little deal a lot of the time, your own little island, trying to do the best that you can,” Kahne said.

And that’s what Kahne did on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When it came to the final restart, Kahne powered past Brad Keselowski for the lead and the win on a track where he had always dreamed of arriving first at the checkered flag.

“Things don't work out too often for us,” Kahne said. “So it was great to win today. It was great to get up front and be able to close it, get in front of the 2 (Keselowski), win the race at the Brickyard — Indianapolis. It was unbelievable.”

Long history with Indianapolis

In 1999, Kahne and his father moved to Indianapolis from Washington State in hopes of establishing a racing career for the then-19-year-old. The family secured a shop on Gasoline Alley. Kahne ran sprint cars and midgets throughout the Midwest. He remembers his first trip to the Brickyard 18 years ago. when Kahne visited the museum and took his first lap on a tour bus. He later returned while on a run, climbed the fence and jogged around the track until security removed him.

Kahne returned in 2004 behind the wheel of a stock car. He finished fourth in his debut in a race won by Gordon. The following year, Kahne led 39 laps before finishing second — just .794-seconds behind Tony Stewart.

Over the years, Kahne has returned to IMS to watch the Indianapolis 500 and F1 races at the legendary track. In his first trip to the Brickyard 400 as a Hendrick driver in 2012, Johnson won, Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished fourth and Gordon rounded out the top five. Kahne was 12th.

Career with Hendrick Motorsports

In his first two seasons behind the wheel on the No. 5 Chevy, Kahne scored multiple victories and qualified for the Chase. In 2014, Kahne won his only race of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the penultimate event prior to playoffs, to transfer into the post-season. That effort seemed to take all the juice out of the team. Kahne wouldn’t score another top 10 the rest of the season and finished 15th in the standings.

That November, HMS signed Kahne to a contract extension through 2018. But crew chief Kenny Francis, who had worked with the driver since 2005, stepped aside at the end of that year. His team engineer, Keith Rodden, took over. Kahne earned one pole, three top fives, 10 top 10s and led 66 laps in 2015 before finishing 18th in the standings. Last year, Kahne’s numbers were similar, but he didn’t lead a lap in 36 races.

As a driver all I want to do is win, all I want to do is perform

Kasey Kahne

This season, Kahne’s performance has been overshadowed by his job status for next season. Although there’s a year left on his current contract, his name continues to swirl in the rumor mill.

Kahne's uncertain future

Team owner Rick Hendrick was asked twice on Sunday whether Kahne would continue to drive the No. 5 Chevy beyond this season.

“Our plans are not set for the 5 car,” Hendrick said after the win. “There's nothing concrete or done, and that hasn't changed. We'll see how things shake out, you know, the rest of the year. There's a lot of things involved, sponsors and a lot of things we look at. We're going to try hard. But there's no decisions made at this time.”

Kahne has heard the scuttlebutt as well. But on Sunday, after his 102-race drought, Kahne wanted to prove he wasn’t giving up without a fight.

“I think this just shows I still want to win races,” Kahne said. “This shows that I gave it all that I can to get a win. It shows that I'm passionate about driving stock cars, that I can still win races, too.

“I have a deal through 2018 with Hendrick Motorsports. Hear a lot of things, but tough to say exactly what's going to happen, because I don't know at this point. I know me and Mr. H will figure it out. But I think this just shows that I want to do it, and that I still have the drive and passion to do it, and I enjoy it. So I'm going to keep trying hard. I know that.”

But in NASCAR, sometimes all the effort in the world won’t propel a driver to the top of the sport. There are far too many variables to take into account. The driver alone can’t carry the car to the championship.

At 21, Kahne was a Ford development driver with Yates Racing when he entered the stock car ranks in 2002. His youth, combined with a path through open-wheel racing, drew comparisons to Jeff Gordon. Kahne was recruited by Dodge owner Ray Evernham to drive the No. 9 car in 2004, prompting a legal battle over his services.

The driver weathered the changes from Evernham Motorsports to Gilllett Evernham Motorsports and through the transition into Richard Petty Motorsports before jumping ship to Red Bull Racing with five races remaining in the 2010 season (under a contractual arrangement with Hendrick as he waited for NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin to vacate the seat of the No. 5 car). He won one race with Red Bull in 2011 before joining Hendrick in 2012. Kahne finished a career-best fourth in the final standings in his first season with HMS.

The desire to win

Each year since, Kahne has dropped in the standings, but it’s not from a lack of trying. Still, there were times he wondered if he would ever win again.

“As a driver all I want to do is win, all I want to do is perform,” Kahne said. “I put the effort in each week, whether it's at the shop, whether it's physically, mentally, at the race shop trying to prepare, watching videos, looking through old notes, how can we be better.

“My team works really hard as well. But we haven't had the performance. We haven't ran up front. We don't lead a lot of laps. We don't lead many laps. Yeah, those things have to cross your mind. If they don't, something would be wrong, I think.”

He’s hoping Sunday’s win will revive the team’s confidence — and his own. Kahne knows how tough it is to maintain momentum when a crew doesn’t win. And at an organization such as Hendrick Motorsports, where winning is expected, it’s easy to feel more like an outsider. And he doesn't have a large support group to help him through the tough times.

“I don't really have anybody, to tell you the truth,” Kahne said. “I just feel like I kind of enjoy life a lot because of my son (Tanner) and just try to show up at the track and do the best that I possibly can and put the work in during the week, but that doesn't mean you're going to run well.

“Everybody is putting the work in. The competition is so tight, so close. You need that little bit extra all the time. Hopefully, this win will give us some of that, because we definitely haven't had that.”

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