This could be the season it all clicks for NASCAR Sprint Cup hometown hero Kasey Kahne.
He’s been oh, so close since storming onto the scene in 2004.
Back-to-back victories at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., in May when he swept the All Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 followed up with a dominating performance at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway in June and it looked like Kahne was a shoe-in for one of the top 12 spots in the sport’s Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship.
Before the final 10 races of the season, a string of bad luck left the Enumclaw native sitting on the outside looking in, finishing the season 14th in drivers’ points.
“We were certainly close,” said the 28-year-old Kahne. “But in 2009 we don’t want to be in a position to where luck or any problems can put us in jeopardy. We plan to win more races and start the Chase with a little bit of a lead on everyone else.”
The 2008 season was filled with changes – car, ownership, sponsor – for Kahne and the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge crew.
This season, the headline grabber was the merger of Gillett Evernham Motorsports, the No. 9’s owner, and Petty Holdings and its connections to NASCAR legend and seven-time Sprint Cup Series champion Richard Petty.
In January, the two merged to become Richard Petty Motorsports.
“This begins the next great chapter for the Petty name in NASCAR,” said the team’s namesake and co-owner Richard Petty. “It was very important to us, not only to see the Petty name out on the racetrack, but also to be competitive and get all of our cars back into victory lane and competing for Sprint Cup Series championships on a regular basis.”
Ray Evenham, who brought Kahne in to fill the seat of legendary driver Bill Elliott in 2004, remains a minority owner, but will be taking on roles outside the organization.
Kahne’s No. 9 is one of four Dodges Richard Petty Motorsports will field in the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and will remain with Budweiser as a sponsor. Gillett Evernham teammate Elliott Sadler will again pilot the No. 19 Stanley Tools/Best Buy Dodge. Reed Sorenson will drive the famous Petty No. 43 and A.J. Allmendinger will sit behind the wheel of the No. 44.
“This is pretty exciting stuff,” Kahne said at the time the announcement was made in January. “I’ve gotten to know Richard over my five years working with Dodge and I look forward to being around him more. This is pretty awesome. The Gilletts have done a fantastic job of putting this together. I think you can see their commitment to winning. We could have kept on the same path, but they made a pretty bold statement that they are here to win.”
And winning is what’s on Kahne’s mind this season.
“It’s pretty obvious for everyone to see what our main goal will be in 2009,” Kahne said. “We feel like we are a Chase team and we aren’t going to be happy until we are back in it. Once we get there anything can happen so I’m not ruling us out of being a major threat for the title.”
Contending for a title isn’t new ground for Kahne.
The former sprint car diver captured the Speedway Mini-Sprints championship in Washington and the Northwest Mini Sprints championship shortly after starting his racing career as a teen.
From 1998 to 2002 he competed in the World of Outlaws, All-Star Circuit of Champions, Gumout Racing Series and Northern Sprint Tour winged sprint car series and in 2000 he won the USAC Midget Series championship and earning the title of National Midget Driver of the Year.
In 2002, he landed a part-time Busch Series ride, NASCAR’s equivalent to baseball’s minor league. One year later, Kahne earned his first Busch Series win and a seventh-place finish in the series point standings.
It was full-throttle for Kahne from his Sprint Cup rookie season when the 2004 Rookie of the Year recorded 13 top-five finishes and completed the season 13th in the point standings, missing the Chase for the Championship by a mere 28 points. Kahne established himself as a contender during the 2006 season when he won a series-high six races and started from the pole six times. He finished the year with 12 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes and earned an eighth-place finish in the driver point standings after qualifying for the Chase for the Championship.
In 2008, Kahne spent the first eight weeks of the season among the Sprint Cup’s top 10 point earners. Thanks to legions of fans, he was voted into the All Star race – and won it – and then also won the Coca-Cola 600 the following weekend. He also won at Pocono – the fourth most wins of any driver in 2008.
But luck ran out as he finished the season 14th.
Kahne would like to be more consistent in 2009.
“Not just for good finishes, but on the bad days when we miss the setup,” he said during Media Day from Daytona International Speedway Feb. 5. “On the bad days, we need to finish in the top 25s; last year we were in the 35s and 40s. We can’t have days like that. We need to keep working on consistency. Obviously, we want to win races. Last year, we won three. Hopefully, we can do at least that this year in the Budweiser Dodge.”
Crew chief Kenny Francis returns to man the pit box for the No. 9 team.
When he’s not on the track, fulfilling appearance requests or sponsor obligations, Kahne enjoys spending time at home with his family and friends or working on his sprint cars at Kasey Kahne Racing. He formed Kasey Kahne Racing in 2007 and currently fields one entry in the USAC Midget and Sprint Car divisions with driver Brad Sweet and one entry in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series with Joey Saldana behind the wheel.
Kahne also spends a great deal of time working with his charity, the Kasey Kahne Foundation, which he created as a way to give back to chronically ill children and their families as well as disadvantaged youth. Every year the foundation raises funds for causes through several events including sprint car races and drifting challenges.
Kahne is also a fan favorite, proven with his vote into the All Star race and by fans on many Web site blogs who believe 2009 is the 9’s time.
The 2009 season is off to a good start. Kahne finished 29th in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
After roaring back in 2008, Kasey Kahne has set his sights on the NASCAR Sprint Cup title chase