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Bounce-back year for Kasey Kahne? Not so fast

Kasey Kahne is hoping to rebound from a 2015 season that saw him miss the Chase and lead only 66 laps. Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports

Kasey Kahne remains one of the biggest enigmas in Sprint Cup. Is the veteran Sprint Cup driver poised for good things, or is he headed for a third straight season of frustration?

First, let's look back.

After an 18th-place finish at Richmond this past September, a discouraged Kahne appeared to be out of answers, perhaps at his breaking point.

"I've struggled all year to have front turn, and, if I don't have that, I can't race," Kahne told NBC. "That's how I've been my whole life, so ... we're just working to get our cars to turn the way I need them to. If we can't, we'll keep running about 15th."

A simple and candid assessment. Unfortunately for Kahne, he and the No. 5 team never were able to turn the corner.

Kahne's average finish was 18.1 last season, which coincided with an 18th-place points finish. The rest of his stat line was just as lackluster. He went winless for the first time since 2010, failed to make the Chase for the first time at Hendrick Motorsports and recorded 10 top-10 finishes -- tied for the second-lowest total of his career. He led only 66 laps, 120 fewer than his previous career low.

Is he still stuck in that same rut? The race at Atlanta on Sunday, the first "measuring stick" event of the 2016 season, did little to suggest that Year 2 with crew chief Keith Rodden will deliver more success.

While his three Hendrick teammates finished in the top 10, with Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. claiming the top two spots, Kahne labored to a 23rd-place finish, two laps down. It was his fifth straight double-digit finish on 1.5-mile tracks, considered the bread and butter of the Cup schedule.

"Kasey did a good job of putting up with the car all day." Rodden told Kahne's website. "We worked on the car a lot throughout the race, but it certainly wasn't the day we were expecting at Atlanta."

Sure, it's only one race, but the result stands out because the No. 5 car was among those on the preseason "Is this year different?" watch. Roush-Fenway Racing was in the same boat, and two of its three cars responded with top-15 runs.

Kahne managed to stay optimistic afterward, tweeting that "Vegas will be better! Can't wait." And it very well could be. But what if he struggles to another pedestrian finish this weekend? Will team morale begin to go south before the season fully gets up to speed? And how soon will Kahne start hearing it from fans and pundits if the performance continues to suffer?

The 35-year-old driver is popular, but the vultures have circled before. After his less-than-stellar 2014, a lot of people had Kahne on the firing line, with up-and-coming Chase Elliott waiting in the wings. Team owner Rick Hendrick quickly extended Kahne for three more years (his contract now runs through 2018), but so far, that job security hasn't translated into better results.

To be fair, plenty of drivers have endured multiyear slumps, even at Hendrick. Kahne's struggles are actually similar to what Dale Jr. experienced from 2009 to 2011, when he failed to win a race and rarely ran in the top five.

Junior has since reversed his fortunes, with seven wins over the past two seasons.

Is there hope for Kahne? Of course. He's a talent (17 career wins, five Chase appearances); he's in elite equipment; and the 2016 aero package, which supposedly favors drivers who like loose-handling cars, should work in his favor.

Still, we saw Kahne admit last season that there were fundamental issues, and, in Atlanta, he didn't appear to have the feel he's long been seeking. For those reasons alone, you can't assume a turnaround is imminent.

-- Scott Symmes is an editor for ESPN.com