When Kasey Kahne made the move over to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, it was the best career move he had ever made in NASCAR. He was joining a team that had won five out of the last six championships, and in 2011, Hendrick equipment took home the title. It seemed like he was entering a wonderland and the perfect ride to elevate his career.
That wonderland came to a screeching halt this past season when Kahne struggled on the racetrack and was visibly frustrated after missing the Chase for the first time in four seasons as the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet.
Kahne is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he recorded just three top-five finishes. His top 10 total was down from 11, to 10 in 2015, his lowest since 2010, when he was a part of Richard Petty Motorsports.
But for Kahne, a driver who came into the sport with such high regard and excelled rather quickly, there is no real reasoning as to why he has fallen off the radar. He has been in the same shop as four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon over the past four seasons, and on the same team as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and multiple race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The No. 5 team hit rock bottom in 2015. After re-aligning himself with former team engineer, Keith Rodden, the team was destined to have instant success, especially with how Rodden elevated Jamie McMurray just a year prior at Chip Ganassi Racing.
In 2015, he lead a career low 66 laps. He also had three DNF’s including a scary incident at Pocono in which he crashed into the pit wall, scurrying members from AJ Allmendinger’s team. But for the majority of the season he was irrelevant when it came to running up front.
“There are different areas that we as a team needed to work on, so we worked on those positions and spots,” Kahne said of changes that occurred over the off-season. “We changed a few people around that we feel will be better for our team morale. Some of the things that I look for in a car and then the other thing is just enjoying what we get to do again.”
Kahne made it clear that last season was the worst he felt inside of a racecar as he was never comfortable on track. He wasn’t able to enjoy the success that his teammates did, all winning a race. It really put his personal morale and the entire team morale down. With racing over the off-season, he believes it will be an increase in momentum heading into 2016.
“I think by going over and racing my Sprint car and racing midgets and doing things over the off-season that I’ve wanted to do for a long period of time kind of was able to start over in a way and feel good about racing cars,” he said. “I think that helped me in the way that I approached this off-season”
2016 will be all about regaining confidence that the Washington native once had. He was unable to gain consistency throughout 2015 and really through his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports. Sure, he finished fourth in the point standings in 2012, but still needed one of the Wild Card positions to make the Chase.
Since joining one of the top teams in motorsports, Kahne was taken the checkered flag, five times. Compare his first four seasons at HMS to his previous four years with other teams, the amount of wins are the same. Even in qualifying the numbers are down as the No. 5 team has only sat on one pole in the last three years.
Change was needed for the new season. Kahne needed a new mindset, and a clear slate before the Daytona 500. With the recent birth of his son, Tanner, Kahne will look to enter the new year with even more of a reason to perform.
He is under contract with HMS through the 2018 season. He doesn’t have to race for his job, but for himself wants to be successful or else he would have a different job. There is so much left for him to achieve inside of a racecar and the first step might be racing more throughout the season.
With recently getting back into a Sprint car, it has urged him to want to race more. He wants to race for his Sprint car team throughout the NASCAR season, if allowed by Rick Hendrick.
Since the death of his friend Jason Leffler in 2013, Kahne has done very little to no dirt racing. In part it was because Farmers Insurance and Hendrick Motorsports didn’t allow him the opportunity to compete outside of NASCAR. With the recent resurgence on dirt, Kahne seems to be amped up heading into the new racing campaign.
Kahne knows that the team needs to be improved if they are to have any success in 2016. The team has been partially rebuilt, and it will be the second season that Rodden and he have worked together as driver and crew chief. The chemistry needs to improve, but he believes that they can outperform from their 2015 numbers.
“As a team we need faster cars,” he said. “It’s not that it’s not all there, it’s what we are putting on the track and what I’m driving and the way I’m driving. The speed’s not there. There are times when I was as fast as anyone this year, but not near enough.
“I want to be at the front for practice, qualifying and reach each week, not just three times a year. We’re better than that and our cars, our team, everybody is better than that.”
Kahne has a history of being on the Chase bubble heading into Richmond, if the team has better equipment, and prepares like every week is its last there is no telling what this team can do. Take for example the 2014 season where it took him until Atlanta to lock himself into the Chase, two races prior to the point reset.
Driving for Hendrick Motorsports, there are no excuses. Kahne needs to achieve success in 2016 or else his first five years with HMS could be called a bust.