by Chris Leone, Special To NASCAR commentary and driver pictures, 2012 NASCAR schedule, video, Bench Racing With Steve and Charlie
I do weekly Fantasy Pick'Em columns here at OPR, as well as the occasional opinion and analysis piece. I also provide the IZOD IndyCar Series coverage. For more on that, head to my site, OpenWheelAmerica.com. My Twitter handle is @christopherlion.March 30, 2012 10:07 am UTC No Comments
That’s what Kasey Kahne might be asking himself after a difficult start to the 2012 Sprint Cup season that sees him a mediocre 27th in points, worst among the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers in his first year with the team. Last week’s 14th place finish at Fontana was his best run of the year, and before that, the team was scarily close to the top-35 owners’ points cutoff that could have enabled them to miss a race.
It’s not what Kahne was hoping for after contract issues forced him to spend an up and down year in a holding pattern at Team Red Bull last season. A gutsy win in that organization’s second-to-last race at Phoenix in November suggested that good times were ahead for the Washington native. But what had been expected to be a winning, Chase-contending combination at the onset of the year now looks every bit like the team that Mark Martin took to 22nd place in points in 2011.
Granted, stranger things – and greater comebacks – have happened in NASCAR’s premier series. Jimmie Johnson went from last in the world (even I had more than -23 points coming out of Daytona) in the standings to ninth coming into this weekend’s race at Martinsville. In this same car, Martin went from 34th place through four races in 2009 to make the Chase and finish second overall. All hope is not lost.
But Kahne has shown an incredible ability this season to beat the one driver that no driver should ever beat – himself. He crashed out at Daytona, walled it in Phoenix, and made an overly aggressive move early at Bristol to effectively end his race before it could even start. At Las Vegas, he qualified on pole, but couldn’t even manage to lead a lap; despite spending over 95% of the race in the top 15, he drifted back to a disappointing 19th at the finish.
That doesn’t do too much to inspire hope in the legions of Kahne-iacs who expected the move from Red Bull to Hendrick to take his career to the next level.
For his part, Kahne is doing whatever it takes to turn this season around. It may seem counter-intuitive to enter the Camping World Truck race at Rockingham on April 15, the day after a night race at Texas for the Sprint Cup boys, but for Kahne, it could serve as a major confidence builder. He’ll be with Turner Motorsports, which qualified its three trucks 1-2-3 at Daytona and fields Kahne in a handful of Nationwide races every year. Kahne has never finished worse than second in four career Truck starts. The combination has every shot at success.
But if Kahne really wants to get it together quickly, he may have no better opportunity than Sunday’s race at Martinsville. In 174 combined starts, Hendrick Motorsports cars have taken 18 wins, most recently in spring 2009 with Jimmie Johnson, and 100 top-10s, including six of eight possible last year.
It would be a great way for Kahne to establish himself at the track, where a pedestrian 20.7 average finish makes the paper clip-shaped short track his fifth-worst track on the schedule. It would also be a great way for Kahne to make his mark at Hendrick; the team has been stuck at 199 wins since October 9, and scoring the organization’s 200th would help build momentum for the rest of the season.
It’s not too late for Kahne to turn his season around. If he can contend for race wins and climb into the top 20, he has a shot at making the Chase as a wild card driver. But the time to turn it around is now, not later. And if Kahne can’t put together a string of strong finishes by Memorial Day, last year’s motto – “wait ’til next year” – may be the phrase of the hour once again.