Kasey Kahne had the look of a championship contender entering this NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. A strong performance to finish out the 2011 season – seven top-10 finishes in the final eight races including a victory and Phoenix – coupled with his move to NASCAR’s powerhouse organization Hendrick Motorsports to fill the No. 5 car left vacant by veteran Mark Martin had Kahne filled with lofty aspirations.
Kahne and his Hendrick Motorsports team expected he would be a title contender this season, but they didn’t think it would take until the 19th race of the season for him to reach that designation. A dismal start to the season with four finishes of 29th or worse in the first six races had Kahne showing flashes of that talent level, but continued to be bitten by bad luck.
“I’d say I felt really confident coming into the season, jumping into such a fast race car,” Kahne said. “But I also knew, myself and Kenny (Francis, crew chief) talked last year that it’s not going to be easy.
“We had some bad luck, some straight-up mistakes, things to learn from. When you do that or have those mistakes, as long as you’re learning from them, you’ll be all right.”
Following his victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – his second of the season – Kahne has finally asserted himself as a championship contender. The win served as a springboard, moving him to 12th in the Sprint Cup Series standings but more importantly has him sitting in the No. 1 wild-card position for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The turnaround comes as no surprise to Kahne because the one thing he said he has had all season – speed. During his much-maligned start, he earned two poles and started in the top 10 in five of the six races. Despite his “horrible start,” Kahne remained optimistic about turning the corner.
“I felt like we’ve had speed since the drop of the first green flag,” Kahne said. “I made mistakes and we’ve had some issues on some of those DNFs. Other than that, we’ve been fast all year. It’s nice we’ve been able to put 10 or 11 top 10s, 13 or 14 weeks together.”
Even with his two victories and in good position in his quest to make the Chase, Kahne still is not satisfied. With seven more races before the cutoff to the Chase, Kahne has his eye on tallying more victories.
“I feel good about where we’re at now,” Kahne said. “Two (wins) helps, but three would put you in a real good spot. We’re going to stay after it. We have some really good tracks coming up. I like my car a lot, so … I think we’ll be in good shape.”