Kahne still searching for answers during rough start

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Dodge officials knew they needed to make changes to the Charger this season if they hoped to improve on disappointing results from the 2006 Nextel Cup season.

"We've had a lot of things go wrong and haven't had the results. Last year we had a lot of good things happen. Hopefully this week is the place to get things started."
-- Kasey Kahne

Unfortunately, there was an unintended consequence of that decision. Essentially, Dodge made its best driver a victim by trying to upgrade the overall picture of it teams.

Kasey Kahne is running at a minus-30 in the rankings compared to one year ago. The position backslide could continue Sunday if he doesn't win the Samsung 500.

The design change to the Charger hasn't benefited Kahne, the poster boy for Dodge success last season.

Kahne ranked fourth in the Cup standings entering the 2006 Texas Motor Speedway April event, which he won for his second victory of the season. That victory moved him to third in the standings.

Now, Kahne is just hoping to stay in the top 35, the Cup Series' version of baseball's Mendoza Line. He enters Sunday's race 34th in the standings. Only the top 35 are guaranteed a starting spot in each race.

Kahne finds his hauler lined up in the garage with the bottom half of the Cup competitors.

"I've been here before, and I'll probably be here again," he said. "That's the way it goes. Right now we need to take advantage of good tracks for us. This is one of them."

Kahne led the series with six victories last season. Now, he's on a five-race streak during which he hasn't finished in the top 15.

Kahne's only top-10 finish this season was seventh in the Daytona 500, but the race doesn't bring back pleasant memories. He was docked 50 points and lost team director Kenny Francis for four races because of a rules violation in qualifying.

If Kahne had those 50 points back, he would rank 27th. Obviously, the penalty wasn't the only thing causing the team's horrendous start. It's more about trying to get a handle on the new version of the Charger.

Most of the Dodge teams struggled last year with the Charger's nose. It didn't react well aerodynamically in traffic.

But Kahne was the exception. The No. 9 Dodge team had it figured out, especially on the intermediate ovals. Four of his wins came on 1.5-mile ovals and two on 2-mile tracks.

Kahne's six victories accounted for all but one win for Dodge last season. Kurt Busch won the spring race at Bristol.

But Kahne was the only Dodge driver to make the Chase. That wasn't good enough for Dodge, which wanted to see all of its teams take a step forward.

Dodge received approval from NASCAR to design a new nose on the Charger this season. A few Dodge teams have shown some improvement, although no Dodge driver has a victory.

David Stremme, who ranked 37th after six races a year ago, is 13th now. Elliott Sadler, who replaced Jeremy Mayfield as Kahne's teammates at Evernham Motorsports, is 14th in the standings. Mayfield was 33rd in the No. 19 Dodge at the same point last season.

But the change to the Charger hasn't helped Kahne. The No. 9 team is trying to get the new nose to work for it the way the old one did.

It's frustrating for Kahne, knowing how good he was with the old car.

"We were strong with the other Charger nose," Kahne said. "We've changed the noses around, put them in different places, moved the bodies around. You wonder why, but there's probably a lot of reasons why."

It was the right decision for Dodge, but no one expected it would become a major pain for Kahne.

"We've had a lot of things go wrong and haven't had the results," Kahne said. "Last year, we had a lot of good things happen. Hopefully, this week is the place to get things started."

The Texas race Sunday should tell us if they've figured it out. Things didn't look encouraging in the final practice session when Kahne was 29th on the speed chart.

"Despite the changes to the nose, our car has been competitive at the intermediate tracks this season," Kahne said. "We had a pole at Las Vegas. We've been fast. The challenge is to make the right adjustments during the race and keep up with the changing track conditions."

That's a major challenge this weekend at TMS. The teams practiced Saturday in cloudy conditions, with temperatures below 50 and gusty winds. But the forecast for Sunday is 70 degrees and clear skies.

The good news for Kahne is he has to run the Charger in only 20 races. The Car of Tomorrow is racing the other 16 events, and Dodge is using the Avenger-style nose.

But TMS is another test for the new Charger. Kahne hopes his team can find the same magic in the new model that he had at TMS in the old one.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.