By Joe Menzer (NASCAR.com. July 18, 2012).
LOUDON, N.H. — By the time he reached the New Hampshire Motor Speedway infield media center for his post-race winner’s news conference Sunday, Kasey Kahne’s legs were beginning to cramp.
And hey, who could blame him? His week began with a 27-second triumph over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in a triathlon in Charleston, S.C., and ended with a five-car-length victory over Denny Hamlin in the LENOX Industrial Tools 301.
“Beating Jimmie in the triathlon was nice, but this race was way bigger. This feels a lot better,” Kahne said of his second Sprint Cup victory of the season, and one that brought pleasant implications for his hopes of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
With the win, Kahne jumped four spots in the point standings to 12th and moved into position to claim one of the two wild-card berths. Twelve drivers qualify for the Chase that determines the season’s champion, with the top 10 in points after the first 26 races joined by two wild-card entries, the two drivers with the most wins who are 11th through 20th in points.
Kahne has come a long way, baby, since a horrendous start to the season that began when he wrecked out of the season-opening Daytona 500 and finished 29th. It wasn’t until the seventh race of the season at Texas that he started to turn it around. He earned his first finish of the season — and of his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports — that was better than 14th. During those disastrous first six races, he also had finishes of 34th at Phoenix, 37th at Bristol and 38th after sitting on the pole at Martinsville. He also won the pole at Las Vegas but finished 19th.
That was not the type of start to the season Kahne nor crew chief Kenny Francis had envisioned when they agreed to join the powerhouse lineup at Hendrick.
“I’d say I felt really confident coming into the season, jumping into such a fast race car,” Kahne said. “But I also knew — Kenny and myself talked about it last year — that it was not going to be easy.”
Turning it around, and up
Kahne didn’t just start turning around his season with the seventh-place finish at Texas. He started turning up the heat on all the teams around him. He won the Coca-Cola 600 in May and has finished in the top nine in 10 of the past 13 races.
“Myself, I thought when we won at Charlotte, that really boosted our team a lot,” Kahne said. “Charlotte to me was a big turning point for us. It got our team really excited and going. Winning [Sunday] is just another bonus. This should give the team even more confidence.”
Francis admitted that the beginning of the season was frustrating, but insisted that he and his driver never lost faith — in each other or the team as a whole.
“We started off and our cars had a lot of speed, like Kasey said,” Francis said. “We took a lot of our ideas to Hendrick Motorsports. We finished the year off really strong last year [at Red Bull Racing]. And when we came here, we had a lot of fresh ideas that we incorporated into the cars.
“So we had some speed. We just had a few issues. We crashed when we shouldn’t have crashed. We had some engines break. We had a few bad pit calls that got us messed up, in poor position, and then got in a wreck. Things like that happen.”
Francis said the key was to simply stay the course they had set for themselves. They refused to panic.
“All in all, we knew the cars were really fast and we had a good thing coming together,” Francis said. “It was just a matter of getting all the gears meshing.”
Earning the gift
Some things in life are gifted and some are earned. And some, like Sunday’s win, are a combination of the two. Kahne made certain he was in position to benefit from a miscommunication between Denny Hamlin and his crew chief, Darian Grubb, with 65 laps to go when Hamlin wanted a two-tire change and ended up getting a four-tire pit stop. It cost Hamlin valuable track position that he was not able to make up, despite having the dominant car of the day.
“I was shocked when the 11 took four and kind of gifted us the lead there,” Francis said.
But Kahne pointed out that they were able to take advantage because they had put themselves in position to do so. And the No. 5 Chevrolet was pretty stout, too, leading 66 laps, second only to Hamlin’s whopping 150.
Kahne’s reward wasn’t just another victory and a leg up on the Chase wild-card competition, but a giant lobster that was presented to him in Victory Lane by Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“They said it was 18 pounds. I felt like 40. It was huge,” Kahne said. “I guess the team is going to get all the lobster meat from it. Then they’re going to put the shell, the rest of the lobster, in a case and send it down to me as a trophy. I’m excited to get that. I’ve never seen a lobster anywhere close to that size.”
So, all in all, it was a big week for Kahne. First, the triathlon triumph, then the race victory. And finally, the lobster conquest.
It kind of makes everyone wonder what he and his race team are going to capture next, because there is a definite sense that they’re not done yet.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
Story at NASCAR.com.