I think it’s a given that when Kasey Kahne joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, many people felt he had united with the team that would help him fulfill his potential.
Kahne’s potential was obvious. When he became a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver in 2004 for Ray Evernham at age 24, he won eight races in four years and won another two when ownership transferred to George Gillett Jr.
Kahne hung around with owner Dietrich Mateschitz and his ill-fated Red Bull team, which dissolved after 2011 – the year, by the way, Kahne earned his 12th career win.
Hendrick has always had an eye for talent and he obviously thought that taking on Kahne – a rising star, very marketable to female fans and who had already displayed talent- would be an excellent move.
In 2012 it appeared that was the case. Kahne won twice, finished 19 times among the top 10 and wound up fourth in points.
This season offered no reason why Kahne could not continue his positive ways. But racing is fickle. Kahne wound up 36th at Daytona and 19th at Phoenix before he dramatically turned things around at Las Vegas.
There he led 114 laps, more than any other driver, but fell short to Matt Kenseth for victory. Kahne’s finish, however, propelled him from 33rd to 14th in points.
It’s often said that when a driver picks up some momentum it carries over to the next race; it gives him an edge.
That’s not always true. But it was for Kahne in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Hendrick driver led 109 of 500 laps, bested Brad Keselowski in some spirited battles for the lead late in the race and went on to win for the first time at Bristol and the 15th time in his career.
Kahne gave NASCAR’s “Generation 6” car its first win on a short track and, unlike 2007, when the “Car Of Tomorrow” won there for the first time, there was no blatant criticism, no deprecating remarks.
How could there be? Passing for position – any position- was plentiful. When leaders scrapped for the top spot, the outcome was uncertain, lap after lap – although it did appear the high groove had the edge.
And when leaders did fight for position, inevitably one or two more cars were able to move up and join in the hostilities – thereby creating more drama.
Yes, it was a big departure from the “bump and run” days at Bristol before the half-mile track was reconfigured – which fans dearly loved – but in return there was plenty of movement, passing and racing.
Kahne could tell you that better than anyone. While racing for the lead, he always had to deal with others in close quarters – such as Keselowski and Kyle Busch. He was constantly sweating it out.
The change came with 40 laps to go when the race restarted from its 10th and final caution period, caused by Jimmie Johnson’s spin.
On the restart Keselowski, the Penske Racing Ford driver, spun his wheels and that allowed Kahne and Busch to zip by. Kahne was threatened lap after lap, but he was never passed for the rest of the way.
“Yes, Brad was battling hard,” Kahne said. “He definitely didn’t want to lose the lead. I got by him, and then I followed a lapped car; one that was going really slow, and I gave it back to him. So I was pretty discouraged at that point in time.
“But I got a good restart. I think Brad must have spun his tires a bit. I had Kyle right on me. We were able to clear him there, and get going from there. But man, he was always there. I felt really good.
“This is a tough track to win at and we pulled it off today. This whole team stepped up and did an unbelievable job. The pit stops were flawless; the adjustments to the car; the preparation Friday-Saturday, and prior to that. The engine in the car is unbelievable.
“I had a great day. This is a lot of fun. I have always wanted to win a Cup race here. To finally do it feels really good.”
The victory moved Kahne to seventh in points, fully in the hunt.
Busch, the fourth-place finisher last week at Vegas, was projected to be a strong victory contender at Bristol because of his impeccable record at the track.
True to form, he won the Craftsman Truck Series race and the Nationwide event. In the Food City 500 he had an excellent chance to score a weekend sweep, but, just as at Vegas, problems arose.
NASCAR tagged Busch with a speeding penalty on pit road – for the second time in two weeks – and that, among other things, impeded his progress.
“We just need to stop getting penalties and just stay up front all day, but I don’t know,” said Busch, who led 56 laps. “We’re trying to take too much on pit road and it’s not working for us, so we just need to back off.
“These guys do an awesome job with these cars. The Camry was fast and the guys did a great job.
“But it was just too tight all day. Just never really had the car that was worth being able to run the bottom as long as it needed to. And then on the top, it was too tight on the top as well too. It’s a good day, I guess.”
Notables, and past Bristol winners, such as Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards (who won at Phoenix) and Tony Stewart did not factor in the race.
Johnson suffered mechanical problems that sent him to 22nd place. Gordon crashed with Vegas winner Matt Kenseth and finished 34th. Carl Edwards was 17th, Stewart 31st.
Hamlin was the race’s dominant driver, leading 117 laps, but late in the race, his car’s handling went away due to a faulty right tire and it was all he could do to keep his Toyota on the track.
But that was not he highlight – make that lowlight – of Hamlin’s day.
He invoked the ire of Penske Racing’s Joey Logano when, well into the race, Hamlin apparently slammed into the rear quarterpanel of Logano’s Ford, causing it to spin up the track and allowing Hamlin’s Toyota to move ahead.
Well, forget “apparently.” TV replays indicated Hamlin’s move sure looked deliberate.
It looked somewhat like the old “bump and run” days at Bristol.
Naturally, Logano did not approve.
“We had a fast race car, that’s for sure,” Logano said. “ I was racing for the lead and it’s frustrating.
That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car (Hamlin) – probably the worst teammate I ever had, so I learned that now.
“He decided to run in the back of me, so, whatever. I have a scorecard and I’m not putting up with that. What goes around comes around. He already ran down his right-front tire, so he deserves it.
“It’s frustrating when you’ve got a car that can possibly win it and to get taken out from something like that. This team deserves better.”
Keselowski remains the Sprint Cup points leader, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was sixth at Bristol for his fourth consecutive top -10 finish of the year, is second, nine points in arrears.
Johnson, Greg Biffle and Hamlin round out the top five.