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Kahne's comeback keeps Hendrick in high gear heading to Dover

The “Race to the Brickyard” has kicked into high gear, and NASCAR Sprint Cup’s latest winner is no stranger to racing in Indianapolis as he gained fame in the United States Auto Club (USAC) ranks before heading to NASCAR in 2002, first as a Nationwide Series driver and then up to Sprint Cup in 2004.

Kasey Kahne endured NASCAR’s longest race to win the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night, May 27 at Charlotte Motor Speedway for career win No. 13 in his 300th Sprint Cup start. Kahne’s victory gave Hendrick Motorsports a virtual sweep of all the big NASCAR races in May with the exception of the Talladega contest May 6. Jimmie Johnson won the Southern 500 to give team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Cup victory. One week later, Johnson drove to victory in the Sprint All-Star Race, and last Sunday night Kahne scored his first win for Hendrick Motorsports in the 600.

It was Kahne’s third win in the Coca-Cola 600.

“It's been an exciting three weeks for Hendrick Motorsports,” Kahne said. “It's exciting to be part of that, part of the 200th win party and part of the picture at Darlington with the 48 guys after they won the 200th win. So Sunday night we were able to put together a really good race and make the right adjustments throughout the race and keep up with the racetrack as it changed. That place changes a lot throughout a start in the day and ending at night.

“It was a solid team effort by our whole team. It's been a lot of fun.”

Kahne has had little time to celebrate, however, as he is in Dover, Del., to prepare for the grueling 400-mile contest Sunday, June 3 on the “Monster Mile.” He has one top-five and four top-10 finishes in 16 Dover starts.

“That concrete's different in the way the tires, the way you build up rubber on the racetrack is a big part of figuring that place out,” Kahne said. “It builds a lot of rubber on the track, which pavement track usually doesn't do that. Pavement tracks you can put rubber on, but it doesn't really build up to where Dover has been doing that a lot in the past couple of years. Just getting through that and 1-mile, high-banked racetrack, it's probably one of the most difficult tracks we go to each year. Need to be prepared physically and ready to go when you get there.

“I think it’s tough. The concrete is part of it and then just the high speeds; and there’s some roughness to the track, as well. The entries are really tricky and then keeping your car to rotate in the center and you get down on the white line again on the second apex to the corners and in order to get your car to do all that stuff, you just have to figure out how to do it and realize how to do it as a driver and the guys you’re working with. So, to me it’s just a tricky track. The corners look really similar, but it’s as difficult as any track we go to, to get the whole track right and to get that balance throughout a whole 400-lapper here.

“It's a great track. It's a place I've never been able to win, but we've come close. We've had some cars that were capable, and just haven't got the job done yet. But it's a neat place. Always look forward to racing at Dover.”

Going into the treacherous Dover track just one week after getting his first victory could spur Kahne to even greater success.

“It was great to get that win (Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte last weekend) and put together a full race like we did,” Kahne said Friday. “It’s awesome to be part of Hendrick Motorsports. I felt like all four cars have been really strong from the start of the year; and once Jimmie (Johnson) broke through at Darlington and won that race, we’ve been able to go on a little roll. So I think our cars are great. The teams are working really well together, and I’ve enjoyed being part of that. Hopefully Dover will be good for us, too.”

When Kahne announced last year he would join Hendrick Motorsports this season, it seemed like a perfect match for a talented younger and NASCAR’s most elite team. But the duo got off to a slow start this season, so Kahne’s victory in the Coca-Cola 600 was important for many reasons. It gives him one victory, which puts him in contention for one of the two wild-card positions in the Chase for the Championship. It also moved him up to 15th in points, 42 points out of the Chase.

There are just seven races left before the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard on July 26-29, and this is the stretch drive for many drivers, not only to get ready for annual NASCAR summer classic at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but also for the “Race for the Chase.”

Kahne has made quite a comeback since he was mired 31st in points after the first six races of the season.

“I sensed something good at Martinsville,” Kahne said. “If you look at where I was running each race that I either crashed out or had problems, I was in the top five of all of them. So this whole season has been pretty decent, minus us not finishing races. But for me to be running second and third at Martinsville, a track I struggled at over the years at times, I felt really good about that and good about where our car was and the adjustments we were making to that point in the race. Then we had our issue in the race and I actually went and sat on -- I didn't get down on that at all. It's racing. Things happen.

“I went and sat on Jeff Gordon's box for the rest of the race and cheered those three guys on as they battled for the win. And Dale Jr. was right in the mix, too, with Jimmie and Jeff. I felt really good at Martinsville and things happen, and we went on to Texas, got our first top 10, and we've been able to get some more since.”

Kahne admitted he had high expectations when he joined Hendrick Motorsports, which is what made his slow start so difficult to accept.

“It was kind of tough because I always put a lot of pressure on myself,” he said. “And I feel like I need to perform with the opportunities I've had in racing. They've been really solid opportunities. And so I put a lot of pressure on myself. But I think earlier in the year, I definitely felt like you're going somewhere, coming into a spot where you know you have the best of everything and everybody out there knows that 5 car is as good as any car on the racetrack every single weekend, and now I'm driving it. And I need to make it look like it should look.

“So, yeah, I think there's probably been some extra bit of pressure there. But it's just what I do. I like pressure. I like putting it on myself and just being able to perform. That's really all I want to do, is perform and work at winning races.”

And driving to victory in one of NASCAR’s marquee events has not only boosted Kahne’s spirits, it could be the spark that he needs to not only secure a spot in the Chase but become a leading contender in seven weeks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“To get that first win out of the way, and now I've won a race for Hendrick Motorsports, and we need to figure out how to win more,” Kahne said. “So it gives myself confidence and some momentum. I think it really gives our team, our whole team a lot of confidence and momentum, and we feel good about the direction that we're all headed in right now. I think HMS is really strong.”

Kahne, from Enumclaw, Wash., is one of the many drivers that honed his racing skills for famed USAC team owner Steve Lewis. It was during that time that Kahne struck up a friendship with another young USAC driver who has gone on to become a winner in the IZOD IndyCar Series – Ed Carpenter.

The two drivers remain friends and check up on each other when their busy schedules allow.

“I felt like that was a big part of kind of my whole deal was I graduated high school a year early in order to be racing in the Midwest through 1999,” Kahne said. “And if I didn't do that, if I would have just done school like everyone else and went to the Midwest in 2000 and went racing, who knows how my career would have been different, because I definitely wouldn't have been driving for Steve Lewis in 2000.

“So I think it's just how bad do you want it and how much can you put into it and performing at the right time. I just want to drive as hard as I possibly can. You want to go as fast as you can. I mean, that's just kind of the mindset that I have. Your car controls how fast you can go, how far you can push it. If I was to keep crashing it, keep having issues, there's no way you're going to finish, make the Chase or anything. I guess, you know, you have to be consistent in this sport. It's how the points are. You have to be consistent. You have to finish races. If you're crashing, you're not finishing, you're losing points.

“The Chase is what it's all about.”

While Kahne has never won at the Brickyard, four-time winner Jeff Gordon is another Hendrick Motorsports driver who hopes to regain a competitive edge at Dover.

“It seems like all of us got off to a slow start, obviously some of us slower than others,” Gordon said. “We have had some moments where we were really strong, but just not putting the races together. The last few weeks just seeing Jimmie (Johnson) get the win at Darlington and then Kasey (Kahne) last week. You know our car was really strong last week, as well. I hope there is more of that to come. My car felt really good here today, too. We definitely are working in the right direction with our setups right now.

“Well, our reason for not being in the top-10 has nothing to do with the way we have been running in the races -- it is the way we have been finishing. There is nothing that you can, no information you can get from your teammates that can stop you from having a blown tire at Darlington, cut tire at Bristol and blown engine at Kansas. For us, we are always sharing information with our teammates and trying to get better, and when they have a good weekend like Jimmie (Johnson) had at Darlington, Jimmie (Johnson) had at the All-Star Race, Kasey Kahne in the 600, then we are definitely paying attention and learning from it. Like I said, I had one of the best cars I’ve ever had in the 600 this past week. Unfortunately, we had to pass about 50 cars to get there to that seventh-place finish just because we got caught out on the green flag stop there. That got us way behind. Then we all knew that the two-tire stop was a risky stop there at the end because we were the last one on two tires, so that didn’t work out, either, but we really rebounded that last run. We are running good enough to certainly be in the top 10 in points. To get that resurgence, we just have to start continuing to put finishes together just like we did last week. I think we are capable of getting some wins before this Chase. Hopefully, we get enough to get us into the Chase.”

Three-time Brickyard winner Jimmie Johnson ended Hendrick Motorsports 16-race winless streak when he drove to victory in the Southern 500. That appeared to ignite Hendrick Motorsports on its recent streak.

“The momentum out of Darlington really helped the No. 48 team,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to say that it impacted the rest of the company because if I think back, I think the No. 24 had some troubles, the No. 88 had a fair night, I think the No. 5 finished well, if my memory is correct. When you win there is nothing like the momentum from that victory for that team. Sure, it carries through the company a little bit, but from my own experience if my teammate won the week prior when I go to the track the next week it doesn’t impact me any. I can say and I said it when I opened up, we have been up here telling all of you that we have fast race cars. I think we have shown it. It’s been tough to really execute like we’ve wanted to and especially for a few of my teammates. To have that all kind of coming around and all four cars running where they should, there is a great feeling in that. As each individual team has their own success, that will build momentum.”

Another Dover threat is two-time Brickyard winner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who is attempting to regain his early-season momentum that appears to have been lost recently.

“We have been pretty inconsistent,” said Stewart, from nearby Columbus, Ind. “We have had some really good runs, and we have had some races that we are still scratching our heads about. We are working through different packages and trying to find the balance that I like. Steve (Addington, crew chief) and I are still just getting to a lot of these tracks for the first time. It’s that growing pain of getting somewhere with a new guy.

“At Dover, it is feast or famine for me. I either run really good or really bad. There is really no in-between. We either hit it or we don’t for some reason.”

Stewart, who competed in five Indianapolis 500s, was still raving about the 96th Indy 500 last Sunday – a race that featured 34 lead changes with Dario Franchitti becoming a three-time winner of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” last Sunday.

“I thought it was the best Indy 500 I’ve ever seen,” Stewart said. “I was glad we got it worked out in my schedule to where I could watch the whole thing and didn’t have to leave before the end of it to go to hospitalities we had them all after the drivers meeting. I got to watch the whole thing. I thought it was awesome.”
 

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