Kasey Kahne backs up win guarantee
CONCORD, N.C. -- Rick Hendrick took the microphone during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for one of his new dealerships on Tuesday and asked Kasey Kahne if he was going to win Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
Kahne, in his typical bashful way, said he hoped to.
"That's not good enough," the owner of Hendrick Motorsports said in a way that demanded a stronger reply.
Responded Kahne, "I will win the Coke 600."
And he did.
He did it in dominating fashion, beating Denny Hamlin to the checkered flag by more than four seconds.
This was the kind of night Kahne envisioned when he agreed to move to Hendrick Motorsports two years ago while still under contract at Richard Petty Motorsports. This was the kind of night Hendrick envisioned when he signed Kahne to replace Mark Martin in the No. 5 after the 2011 season.
Unfortunately for the 32-year-old driver who still doesn't look a day over 21, the season began with one disaster after another. It started with a wreck in the opener at Daytona and didn't end until a blown engine in the sixth race at Martinsville that left him 31st in points with an average finish of 28.5.
It was as if Kahne was snake-bit.
He felt snake-bit.
Then race by race, Kahne began gaining momentum and confidence. He had a seventh at Texas, followed by an eighth at Kansas, fifth at Richmond, fourth at Talladega, eighth at Darlington and now first at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
That's an average finish of 5.5 in six races, a 23-spot improvement over the first six for those doing the math.
Now Kahne has to be considered the Chase contender most thought he would be when he arrived at the sport's top organization, when he got to a team that wasn't worried if it would exist the following season -- sometimes the following week -- due to financial woes.
He's 15th in points with a bullet, only 42 points behind the 10th spot guaranteed a spot in the Chase. With a win he's also in position for one of the two wild-card positions, although he trails Brad Keselowski with two wins and 13th-place Ryan Newman with one.
"It feels really good," Kahne said. "It's so special and awesome to drive for Rick and Linda Hendrick. For them to make me a part of their company this is unbelievable to drive for Hendrick Motorsports and be a part of everything they do there.
"I have the greatest teammates to work with, which is something that I have really looked forward to. They are all awesome guys, and to learn from those guys, work with those guys, is all I really wanted to do."
No, all Kahne wanted to do was win. He showed glimpses of superstardom in 2006 when he drove for Evernham Motorsports, winning six races and finishing eighth in points.
But every year since then has been an adventure -- sometimes a nightmare. He had won only five times over the past five-plus seasons before Sunday night, watching Evernham Motorsports become Gillett Evernham Motorsports and eventually RPM. He spent last season at soon-to-be-defunct Red Bull Racing, waiting for Martin to complete his deal with HMS.
He was almost salivating while waiting for this season to begin, for moments like this to happen.
"Anytime you go to a new organization the pressure is always on," said third-place finisher Kyle Busch, who once drove Kahne's No. 5 at HMS. "You need to perform and you need to win. The pressure is off at Hendrick Motorsports. Might be tougher [to beat him now]."
To Hendrick's credit, he didn't stick his leg in the window of Kahne's car for a victory ride like he did a week ago after Jimmie Johnson won the All-Star Race. But he was the first to greet Kahne after a wild burnout in which Kahne seemed to unleash years of frustration, and tapped his driver on the head as if to say he'd arrived.
"Didn't cross my mind," Hendrick said of repeating what he called the dumbest move of his career. "I'm still sore from the other one. I've still got bruises. That was one and done."
Nobody thinks that Kahne will be one and done when it comes to winning for Hendrick.
It's so special and awesome to drive for Rick and Linda Hendrick. For them to make me a part of their company this is unbelievable to drive for Hendrick Motorsports and be a part of everything they do there.” -- Kasey Kahne
"I felt like all along, when the luck would turn, these guys would win races," Hendrick said.
That Kahne made NASCAR's longest race his first win for HMS shouldn't come as a big surprise. He has won this race two other times, and now has four wins at CMS in 17 races.
But none of the others here seemed quite so sweet. This was significant because it put Kahne in the same club with teammates Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- who by the way all congratulated him in Victory Lane and all finished in the top 11 -- as contributors to HMS's now 201 wins.
Kahne witnessed what it was like to be in that club on the same day Hendrick got the guaranteed win during a party that included country music singer Brad Paisley. All the other drivers there had contributed to the milestone win. All the other drivers had great memories about what they've done for Hendrick.
Now Kahne has one.
"Being there and listening to all of the stories of drivers that won, and listening to the history that lies at Hendrick Motorsports was pretty awesome," said Kahne, who helped HMS to its third straight win, counting the All-Star Race. "I was sure happy to be there. It feels great to win a race tonight."
Kahne thought he would win much faster. He was fast the day he arrived at HMS, starting on the pole in two of the first six races and in the top 10 in five of six.
He just couldn't avoid mistakes -- those made by him, other drivers or engineers.
"I could see it was bothering him," Hendrick said. "A racer doesn't like to wreck a car or have bad luck. You could see it with [crew chief Kenny Francis], too. They hated to have those problems. I just tried to reassure them you guys are in it for the long haul."
But Hendrick did seem to relish putting Kahne on the spot earlier in the week. He insisted he was joking, but he also had a gut feeling this could be the race Kahne won.
That's why Hendrick dipped into his memory banks and stole a page from one of his heroes, Winston Churchill.
"In his comments were, 'Sometimes your best isn't good enough, you have to do what is required,'" Hendrick said.
And Kahne responded as you would expect.
"I don't say too much," he said in his understated way. "I try to perform. But yeah, Rick was on me that day to win. It worked out."
The pressure's not off now.
"Now you've got to win Dover," Hendrick said of next weekend's race at the Monster Mile.
Replied Kahne, "OK."
He's a faster learner, too.
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