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Commentary

LEE: Four Drivers Who Need a Texas Turnaround

FORT WORTH, Tex. – Legendary baseball player Yogi Berra was known for his famous sayings, or “Yogi-isms.”

One of my personal favorites? “It’s getting late early.” Fresh off the season’s first short track race of the year, the teams have seen nearly every type of track they’ll encounter from now until November.

While NASCAR is about as far from America’s favorite pastime as you can get, the clock is ticking for several drivers who have struggled in 2016.

Matt Kenseth

The 2003 champion finds himself 14th in points after six races, the farthest down he’s been at this point in a season since finishing the 2009 campaign 14th. But unlike the other drivers on this list, Kenseth’s problem hasn’t been speed: it’s a black cloud that’s been lingering over his No. 20 Toyota Camry since last October.

For those who don’t know, Kenseth’s season spiraled out of control when Joey Logano spun him at Kansas Speedway in the opening race of the second round of the the Chase. A crash at Charlotte the following week set the stage for their infamous run-in at Martinsville, where a frustrated Kenseth crashed Logano after he felt he was taken out by Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski.

Kenseth was less than a mile away from winning his third Daytona 500 this February before he was shuffled back to 14th in the mad dash to the checkers. The next week in Atlanta, Kenseth was again one of the cars to beat, leading 47 laps. A pit penalty for illegal fueling led to a communication breakdown on the team’s radio that saw Kenseth fall two laps behind and out of contention en route to a 19th place finish.

A crash at Las Vegas and another comedy of errors on pit road at Auto Club Speedway ruined strong runs for Kenseth. At Martinsville, he appeared to be well on his way to turning the ship around before a late-race restart saw him on the outside of teammate Kyle Busch. The result was a 15th place finish that spoiled a tremendous run.

Oddly enough, the race that Kenseth didn’t lead, Phoenix, saw him make it to the finish in one piece in seventh.

Kasey Kahne

Kasey Kahne, Kasey Kahne, wherefore art thou, Kasey Kahne?

Once regarded as the next big thing in NASCAR, Kahne’s rise to the top is all but a distant memory in 2016. After finishing fourth in points in his debut season in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5, Kahne has failed to finish in the top 10 for three consecutive years. Kahne’s last victory came in 2014, when he won at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Through six races, Kahne has yet to lead a single lap and has just one top 10 (Las Vegas). Kahne qualified second at Martinsville last week, but dropped like a rock from the start and brought his Chevrolet home 22nd. It feels like every time we expect to see something from Kahne, he falls flat on his face and shows he’s a distant fourth in the Hendrick pecking order.

Kahne qualified 17th for the Duck Commander 500, but has seen success at Texas in the past. He finished eighth in this race last year, and does have a win at TMS. If you believe in fate, it should be noted that Kahne’s victory at Texas came 10 years ago to the day of the Duck Commander 500.

Kyle Larson

On the heels of a third-place run at Martinsville Speedway, it would be easy to remove Larson from this list. But when you look closer at the numbers, it’s easy to see why Larson isn’t out of the woods.

Larson has only posted back-to-back top fives once in his career, when he did so in September 2014. Taking it a step further, the Chip Ganassi prodigy hasn’t recorded consecutive top-10 finishes since last June.

The No. 42 Target Chevy has yet to lead a lap in 2016, and Larson has only advanced to the third round of qualifying once this season, including Friday, when he qualified 20th for the Duck Commander 500. Larson and crew chief Chad Johnston will hope for a run similar to 2014 at Texas, when Larson finished fifth in this race.

 Greg Biffle

With the exception of Team Penske, Ryan Blaney and a couple of strong runs from Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Ford has been behind Chevrolet and Toyota in the early stages of 2016.

Greg Biffle has hoisted the Texas six shooters twice in his career, last winning at TMS in 2012. Prior to the switch to the Generation 6 chassis, Biffle was a Texas master with nine top-10 finishes in 10 starts in the “car of tomorrow.”

If Biffle is ever going to re-establish himself as a frontrunner in the cup series, a trip to Texas might be exactly what the doctor ordered for the No. 16 team. Otherwise, it may be time for Roush Fenway to find a new lead driver.

EMAIL HANK AT editors@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, it’s owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
News

KK in for CC at JRM in CLT

JR Motorsports will be competing in next weekend’s Camping World Truck Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a familiar face.

@KaseyKahne will pilot the No. 00 Haas Automation Chevrolet for the team, making only his fifth Truck Series start. In five starts he has won four times – his latest coming at Rockingham in 2012 – and has never finished worse than second. He is no stranger to JR Motorsports, having raced for the organization in select XFINITY Series events for several seasons.

“This opportunity to have Kasey in the truck will help the team evaluate our program on an intermediate track,” general manager Kelly Earnhardt-Miller said. “And Kasey’s stats in that series really speak to his talent.”

Kahne steps into the ride at an important time for the organization. NASCAR Next driver @ColeCuster00 is too young to race at intermediate tracks, allowing the Cup veteran to help the young truck team grow.

In his only race with the truck so far this year, Custer found himself battling for the win in a dramatic race in Martinsville, though a late race accident saw him finish 16th. The 17-year-old driver is slated to drive the truck nine more times throughout the rest of the season.

The opportunity will also allow Kahne to grab more experience behind the wheel for a busy two weeks at Charlotte. He has claimed victory once at the race track when he won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2012.

“I’m looking forward to running the truck race at Charlotte for JR Motorsports,” said Kahne. “They had a fast truck in the Martinsville race and have a great program going over there. Thanks to Kelley, Dale Jr. and Gene Haas for putting this deal together.”

“I haven’t been in a truck race in a long time, but I always enjoy racing in that series.”

EMAIL JOEY AT joey.chapman@popularspeed.com

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kahne Looks to Return to Victory Lane at Bristol

A glance at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings may result in a double-take. While @KevinHarvick leads, there are many surprises with the names that follow. One of those surprises includes fifth-place @KaseyKahne who, seven races into 2015, is the highest-ranking Hendrick Motorsports driver. He leads last week’s winner @JimmieJohnson by 14 points.

High expectations surrounded Kahne when he joined the organization back in 2012. While the No. 5 team has captured a total of five victories in three years, they have struggled with consistency. The driver has managed to make the Chase each year but finished 12th and 15th in the past two seasons.

However, team owner Rick Hendrick is known to be skilled at improving his teams through personnel changes. During the off-season, the team gained a new crew chief in Keith Rodden. It appears the duo has gotten off on the right foot.

His average finish, 11.4, is reminiscent of the beginning of the 2013 season where he accumulated an 11.7 average finish in the first seven races. That year, he had already claimed a win at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Sprint Cup Series will compete in the Food City 500 today.

After scoring his only victory at the half-mile track in 2013, the Enumclaw, WA native followed up with a second-place finish later in the year. Additionally, four of his last five starts have resulted in a top-10 finish.

This weekend, the No. 5 team has shown they will be formidable competition, standing on top of the board in both first and second practice.

“My first qualifying attempt was through the middle (line) and I didn’t quite have the speed that I wanted, so the next two were on the bottom,” Kahne elaborated after qualifying eighth on Friday. “I felt like I picked up (speed) down there. The track has been interesting. To me, there has been a little less grip up high… I was a little surprised by that.”

“(The track) is still a long ways from how it will be on race day, and during the race it will change as well. Maybe it’s a good thing; maybe we will be able to race all over the track…”

Kahne could be considered a dark horse for this event as he looks to become the second Hendrick Motorsports driver to grab a winner decal and a spot in the Chase.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne Clash in Las Vegas

Kasey Kahne believes he had a race-winning car on Sunday at Las Vegas andmay have had a shot at besting Kevin Harvick in the closing laps if not for a lap 192 run-in with Carl Edwards.

In just his third race with Joe Gibbs Racing, Edwards slid up the track in Turn 4 on lap 192 and pancaked Kahne into the outside retaining wall. Kahne appeared to retaliate in the very next corner when he drove deep into Turn 1 and pinned Edwards into a three-wide situation with Denny Hamlin.

Contact between the three sent Edwards spinning in front of the field and resulted in a caution. Edwards went behind the wall and finished 42nd while Kahne finished 17th and one lap down after fighting to control his splitter-damaged Chevrolet.

In the garage with a broken oil cooler, Edwards took responsibility for both incidents.

“It’s completely my fault,” Edwards said. “Kasey did a good job. I just got sucked up into him coming off of Turn 4 and tore up the right side a little bit. Then, I got loose off of Turn 1 and that was it.

“I feel bad because Comcast Business came on board in a big way and that was definitely my fault. I feel bad for Kasey.”

Edwards approached Kahne after the race and apologized in person. Despite the admission of remorse, the incident left Kahne feeling frustrated and reflecting over what could have been.

“He just stayed in the gas,” Kahne said. “We just needed a full another car worth of racing room there, and just plowed us into the wall. That was discouraging. We had a really good Time Warner Cable Chevy and felt like on the last 20 laps of a race run, we were the best car. Before that, Harvick definitely had us covered.”

If not for the damage, Kahne believes he would have been in the top-5 after those final pit stops and chasing Harvick down alongside Ryan Newman, Martin Truex and Dale Earnhardt Jr. To his argument, Kahne had run in and near the top-5 all afternoon and looked to be biding his time during the restart where he and Edwards ran into each other.

“It would have been a lot of fun to at least try to race him there at the end,” Kahne said. “See if we could catch him. It would have been interesting. He was really, really good and won today. But I feel like we had the second best car and we were really close.”

After the race, and following his conversation with Kahne, Edwards said he just wished he had been more patient on that fateful restart.

“It’s not just frustrating — it’s pretty stupid,” Edwards said. “I just should have been a little calmer, but it’s kind of fun racing up front like that and it got me going. … I was being too aggressive on that restart. I started to slide up and I should have backed out of it way earlier.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kahne Discouraged by Elimination

By Matt Weaver — Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth entered the final race of the Contender Round separated by just a single point, making their goal on Sunday a simple one — finish ahead of the other.

That goal was solidified once it became apparent that Brad Keselowski was going to win the GEICO 500, obtaining a transfer spot despite running outside of the top-eight in the championship standings. A Keselowski victory meant that winless drivers (from this round) would actually have to finish seventh or higher in the standings to advance.

When the dust settled, Kenseth finished second to race-winner Keselowski while Kahne finished 12th. The result was not enough to overtake Jeff Gordon, who finished with three more points than Kahne to move on to the Eliminator Round. Kahne says he was aware of what he needed to do in the closing laps but just got bit by circumstances on the penultimate restart.

Kahne says he got bottled up in traffic and was never able to regain momentum or his lost track position. He knew immediately that the circumstances cost him a chance to race for the championship and made him lament lost opportunities earlier in the Contender Round — specifically his crash two weeks ago at Kansas.

“It’s discouraging,” Kahne said. “I look back at Kansas. We had a tire issue when we were running third, we go to the back and I still could have easily finished 1oth but finished 22nd because I screwed up and hit the wall.

“There’s 12 points that would have got us in.”

Instead, it was Jeff Gordon and Kenseth that advanced, with the latter nearly winning the race after pushing new rival Keselowski to the finish line. The 2003 Sprint Cup champion ran in the back all race and was shuffled back to the rear anytime that he tried to move to the front in the middle stages of the event.

Ultimately, he found himself in the right place at the right time.

“I hate the strategy of riding in the back, but the one time we went to the front I just didn’t feel like we had the speed in our Home Depot Toyota to go up there and lead laps and be in a real safe spot so we just kept getting shuffled back,” Kenseth said. “We had a good pit stop there at the end — Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) made a good call and got us some track position and a couple good restarts.”

At the end, when separated by a handful of points entering Talladega, every point and position on the track mattered.

Categories
Editorial

Reactions: Oral-B 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

By Matt Weaver (ATLANTA) — The final Labor Day race weekend event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, at least for the foreseeable future, will go down as memorable if nothing else.

Despite the shenanigan-filled conclusion, the opening salvo of the Oral-B USA 500 did not tip the hand of what was to come as Kevin Harvick dominated before pit strategy and late-race cautions decided the outcome as they are prone to do at the North Georgia speed plant.

When the dust (literally) settled, it was @KaseyKahne standing in Victory Lane for the first time this season, likely earning an unlikely berth into the Chase for the Championship as a result.

This was the first real example of the Game 7 moment that NASCAR desired when announcing the new Chase Grid format back in January, a driver overcoming remarkable odds to win his way into the sport’s playoff system.

Honestly, it was closer to a Game 6 moment with Richmond still remaining on the regular season schedule later this week but it was late enough in the game, and Kahne was in deep enough of a hole in the standings, that winning a race was likely his only possible chance at making the Chase. And despite all that adversity, Kahne responded as superstar drivers are supposed to do, displaying an undeniable grit that allowed him to force his way into the Field of 16.

Kahne and his No. 5 team had to earn it too.

The new championship effort is going to benefit a total team effort more than ever before. And on a night where the dominant No. 4 team simply got beat on pit road, Kahne was given track position throughout the night and capitalized, taking the lead on a lap 300 restart and using clean air to hold off Harvick until the final caution with two laps remaining.

After one final round of pit stops where @MattKenseth and Paul Menard took two tires and restarted on the front row, Kahne fell from the lead to fifth due to taking four tires, the lead and his Chase chances fading before his eyes.

But Sunday was a championship-level performance from Kahne as the 34-year-old would not be denied, despite two attempts at a green-white-checkered and having to hold off Kenseth, @DennyHamlin and @JimmieJohnson.

It was an effort that could eventually net the oft-scrutinized Kahne his first championship, should he just prove capable of gritting his way to the Homestead-Miami championship finale.

And speaking of which … while pundits and fans have been trying to come up with a spiffy name for the Championship Race at Homestead in November, Rick Hendrick has silently been working on his own branding for the final four: Hendrick Motorsports.

Kahne now joins top-seeded teammates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Johnson in the Chase, making the top-flight organization a real threat to ruin NASCAR’s new vision with a one-team championship battle. Just envision the uproar if NASCAR had to endure its version of Alabama playing LSU in the NCAA BCS National Championship Game. After the race on Sunday, that possibility is suddenly more realistic than ever before.

Smoke Signals

The biggest news of the weekend was undoubtedly the return of Tony Stewart following his three-week sabbatical on the heels of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy on August 9. His return went as smoothly as it could off the track but ended on it after slamming into the wall on lap 122.

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion read an emotional and heartfelt statement on Friday morning and was off-limits to fans and media for the remainder of the weekend.

The more controversial storyline was NASCAR’s decision to declare Stewart Chase eligible should he manage to win the races at Atlanta or Richmond this coming weekend. This isn’t a space to debate the rightness or wrongness of the decision but rather an analysis of the repercussions moving forward.

Drivers expressed a variety of reactions to the declaration on Friday from approval (Brian Vickers) to “no comment” from Greg Biffle — perhaps a louder statement than any criticism could have mustered.

NASCAR has now set a precedent that any driver who receives an injury while competing outside the confines of the Sanctioning Body is now eligible for a Chase Grid exception. And make no mistake, Stewart did suffer an emotional injury three weeks ago in New York, a fact that should not be understated by fans or the national media.

But here’s the larger question:

What if Kyle Busch injures himself running a Late Model race like the spotterless Kalamazoo Klash and had to miss two weeks of competition? Would he too qualify for the exception? Should he?

NASCAR President Mike Helton may have tipped his hand to the league’s reasoning during his own press conference on Friday afternoon when he said the following about his multi-time champion and oft-used ambassador.

“We want to join everybody in racing in welcoming Tony back,” Helton said. “He’s a great asset to NASCAR. He’s a great champion, a great participant in our sport.”

So would the same protections be afforded to those who would be considered a considerably less valuable asset like a Ricky @StenhouseJr (Midgets), @AJDinger (IndyCar) or @DavidRagan (Late Models) who all conduct extracurricular racing activities in their free time? That’s a question that will only be answered in time.

It does appear that NASCAR is willing to offer a fair-minded exception for anything short of a driver winning a race early in the season and taking a summer month off to mentally prepare for the Chase. And if that’s the case, NASCAR should be applauded and not scrutinized.

But the next request for an exception following a non-NASCAR injury will be under a much more powerful microscope after the events of this weekend.

Date Change Will Work for Atlanta Too

This past weekend was a clear cut reminder from every angle why the Atlanta race weekend needed to be moved off of Labor Day. The following is a list of all the events that took place in the greater Atlanta area this weekend:

  • Atlanta Braves hosting the Miami Marlins at Turner Field
  • The college football kickoff with two games at the Georgia Dome
  • Dragon Con in downtown

Combine that with a heat index well over 100 degrees this weekend and the late February/early March date is a likely a godsend and savior for Atlanta Motor Speedway and SMI.

The event now has the possibility to become one of the marquee events on the greater Atlanta hierarchy in the spring and fans will be considerably more comfortable with an average high that averages near 65 degrees during the day, when the races will now be contested. Sure the possibility of occasional freezes remain but the positives far outweigh the negatives for one of the more storied tracks on the schedule.

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Going the Distance … with Kasey Kahne

Each week, Popular Speed will ask a different NASCAR personality a handful of questions about their career, lifestyle or an off-beat personality trait. Next up: A brief conversation with Hendrick Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne.

Popular Speed: Do you still feel the novelty and aura of getting to the race track each week or has it become a job?

Kasey Kahne: Nah, it’s a novelty still. It’s still something I very much look forward to each week, preparing myself and preparing with the team. So yeah, I still enjoy this every day. I’m so fortunate that I get to drive a race car every weekend and think about it as much as I do.

PS: Do you have a bucket list track that you haven’t been able to race on yet?

KK: I look at bucket lists in terms of places that I haven’t won yet and Darlington is on the top of that list. But I would say all of them (that I haven’t won at yet) — Talladega, the Daytona 500, Indianapolis. We haven’t won at Watkins Glen yet over the years and that might be my most frustrating track.

So it’s pretty critical for me to figure that place out and just do better at The Glen. Our schedule is tough with a lot of variety.

PS: Which driver, from another discipline, would you love to race against in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series?

KK: Oh wow, I don’t know. I guess I would want to race against a Formula 1 driver like Fernando Alonso or someone of that ilk. He’s someone that has been so fast for so many years and I would love to race against him.

PS: What is your favorite all-time paint scheme?

KK: I’m not sure (historically). I’ll say that I’ve had a lot of good paint schemes over the years. I’ve had a lot of great sponsors. This Thank a Million Teachers car has to be one of the best ones that have ever been on the track and I really believe it.

Kahne

PS:  What is one make-or-break moment that has defined your early career?

KK: I think graduating high school early and putting myself in a position to start taking college classes and hitting the road was key — being able to move to Indianapolis one year early. The timing of everything just worked out. So I would say finishing up school and finishing up strong and was the key.

Read Previous Going the Distance Q&As here.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kasey Kahne Pumps Up Local School, Focuses on Talladega Opportunity

By Matt Weaver (TALLADEGA, Ala.) Kasey Kahne spent Friday morning at Oxmoor Valley Elementary School, honoring local teachers as part of the Farmers Insurance Thank a Million Teachers program.

During the visit, Kahne unveiled his special No. 5 Thank a Teacher paint scheme that will honor teachers at three NASCAR Sprint Cup events over the next month at Talladega, Kansas and Charlotte respectively. The sponsorship coincides with the month of May, which is also National Teachers Appreciation Month.

To kick off the festivities, Kahne thanked a teacher, Ms. Grace, by providing her tickets to this weekend’s races at Talladega Superspeedway.

“It was neat to come here and talk to the students and staff,” Kahne said following the event. “The kids really seemed to enjoy themselves and that’s what mattered most. We were able to talk to them about teachers, how they have been a positive influence in my life and how they will continue to be.”

Packed into the second-year school’s gymnasium, the students greeted Kahne with a standing and cheering ovation on Friday morning. It was a refreshing sight considering that today’s grade-schoolers are the potential future of NASCAR’s growing fanbase.

“They were really pumped up,” Kahne said. “They had their shirts on. They had these name tags they had made up. It was really cool and I really enjoyed it.”

Now Kahne turns his attention towards his ailing Sprint Cup Series team, which enters the weekend at Talladega 22nd in points. In seasons past, Kahne would need to rally just to have a shot to make the Chase for the Championship. But with the new championship format in place, a single victory will likely be enough to guarantee entry into the 10-race playoff as long as he remains in the top-30 of the championship standings.

At Talladega, anything can happen, and opportunity may come a calling for Kahne on Sunday in the Aaron’s 499.

“The same things apply to the whole field,” Kahne said. “If you’re in the top-30, this is your chance to make it into the Chase. We started out rough but I feel like we’ve been competitive the last three weeks for the majority of the race.

“We just haven’t put a whole race together yet for a variety of different reasons. We’re getting close and once the whole team puts everything together, we’re going to be ready to capitalize.”

A video of Kahne speaking to media after his appearance can be viewed below.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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