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Reigning Brickyard Winner Kahne Eager for Fresh Start with Small Leavine Team

Kasey Kahne knew he was leaving Hendrick Motorsports before he we won the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As that race lasted into the darkness of the night with overtime after overtime extending the contest, Kahne was physically and emotionally spent by the time he got to Victory Lane.

He had accomplished a dream of winning a race at the most fabled race course in the world, but he also realized it would probably be his last Brickyard with Hendrick Motorsports.

Kahne’s win qualified him for the NASCAR Playoffs, but he was a first-round elimination. Once the season was over, the driver from Enumclaw, Washington, found a fresh beginning at Leavine Family Racing as the driver of the No. 95 Chevrolet.

Kahne’s fresh start begins in Sunday’s 60th Daytona 500 when he starts 26th – the outside of Row 13.

For the first time since the advent of NASCAR’s playoff system, the 26-race regular season will conclude at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the famed Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard. Traditionally, the Brickyard has been held in the hot, humid, sweltering days of late July or early August, but this year the race will take place Sunday, Sept. 9.

The Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard will be the final time competitors can advance into the 16-driver NASCAR Playoffs. The “Road to the Brickyard” officially begins at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday with the Daytona 500, with Kahne beginning a new phase of his career with a new team.

“It’s been going pretty good,” said Kahne, who was a USAC open-wheel star before he joined NASCAR in 2002, first with the Xfinity Series before moving up to Cup in 2004. “There is definitely a lot of differences and things that I’m trying to learn as I go and they are trying to learn about me. Now we are down to one car and for here the rest of the year. The team was worn out after The Clash because there was so much going on.

“I feel like that we learned a lot, each one of us, and we will apply it starting (on Daytona race day) and keep getting better.”

Kahne once drove for arguably the most successful team with the deepest resources in NASCAR history at Hendrick Motorsports. Now, he is driving for a true “family” operation. It even has “family” in its name.

“The size of the team is probably the main difference,” Kahne said. “The size of the company, the size of the team. To get a race car to the track is a completely different way of doing it. I’m perfectly fine with it, but it’s just a completely different way of doing it.”

Hendrick Motorsports has over 500 employees. Leavine Family Racing has about 26.

Leavine has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and that will help in engineering and the technical side.

It also allows Kahne to talk to RCR drivers Austin Dillon and 2013 Brickyard winner Ryan Newman.

At Hendrick, Kahne had three teammates. At Leavine, he is the only driver.

“I think once we get racing I will understand kind of where that is because I haven’t really been on a single-car team ever,” Kahne said. “I will learn that more as we go. At this point, I haven’t missed it, and I still feel like we have that alliance power to look at other things if we need to. But once we get out to the West Coast and running those races, then I think I will learn a lot more like, ‘Man, I wish I had Chase Elliott to go and talk to or this or that.’

“To this point, there really hasn’t been any challenges. To this point, the guys have done a nice job, and my car, everything has felt just how I would want it to feel as far as where I sit and the things that I hold on to. So everything has been pretty simple up to this point. I think as this season goes, as we start racing and the pressure turns up, then that is probably where we will find some more challenges, but at this point it hasn’t been bad at all.”

Keeping it simple can help Kahne at this stage of his career.

After Hendrick Motorsports decided to go with a youth movement, the team’s driver lineup became a total remake. Superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired, and Kahne was not re-signed. With young driver Chase Elliott in the No. 9, team owner Rick Hendrick put 19-year-old William Byron in the No. 24 Chevrolet and Alex Bowman in Earnhardt’s old No. 88.

Kahne’s No. 5 became the No. 9, and Elliott switched from the No. 24 to the No. 9 – the number his father, Bill, made famous in his racing career.

The only older driver remaining at Hendrick is seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48. 

The end of his opportunity at Hendrick creates a fresh start for Kahne at Leavine. And he believes the combination will surprise some people in the Cup Series this season.

“That is my plan,” Kahne said. “Travis (Mack, crew chief) is someone who knows a lot about the race cars and has been working on them for a long time, and I feel like he is going to give me great race cars, and then our engineers are really solid. Yeah, I think we can definitely run up to our expectations. I feel like that will surprise a lot of people, and I really feel like we will be able to run up to our expectations throughout the season.” 

Kahne is a racer, and that is why his expectations are high, especially in the Daytona 500.

“Daytona – we want to win,” Kahne said. “You come to Daytona, and every driver here feels like they really probably have a great shot at winning this race if things go their way and they make the right decisions.

“That is how I feel about Daytona.  

“I don’t feel like I will be any slower on Sunday than I’ve ever been. To me, I have just as good of a shot as I’ve ever had at this race. I look forward to having that. As far as once we get to Atlanta and Vegas, I think it’s hard to set expectations on your actual finishing results until you kind of see where you stack up and then you work from there.

“My big thing to me is just working together as a team and always, whatever we are learning, we are applying the next week to suit me and to make the No. 95 better for me. If we are doing that throughout the whole season we are going to meet our expectations. We just always want to keep coming up the ladder, in my opinion.”

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