Published March 24, 2012
| Associated Press
FONTANA, Calif. – Kasey Kahne waited nearly two years between signing with NASCAR's winningest team and finally climbing into his new ride.
So far, the wait was hardly worth it.
Kahne opened the season with a month of wrecks, mistakes and disappointing results for Hendrick Motorsports, culminating in a collision with Regan Smith that ruined last week at Bristol. He's 32nd in the Sprint Cup Series points standings, and his car is down to 34th in owner points, theoretically putting Kahne in position to lose a guaranteed spot in the field if he has another wreck or awful performance Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.
It's a tense situation to navigate so early in the NASCAR season, but the former boy wonder still radiated quiet confidence while working with his team at his hauler in Fontana.
"I would be (down) if my cars were slow, but everything has been so good," Kahne said. "My team is so good. There's really no reason to be down, other than we're not in the position we want to be in."
Even though Kahne has had more knee surgeries (three) than Sprint Cup victories (one) since September 2009, he's determined to get his season back on track in Fontana, where he qualified fifth Friday on the track where he won in 2006.
Such is the self-confidence of the former Rookie of the Year from Enumclaw, Wash., who has earned 12 wins and more than $49 million before his 32nd birthday next month.
"Some of it may be bad luck, and then some of it may be me making mistakes," Kahne said. "Some of it's been luck, and I've messed up, but wrecking has been the problem. Everyone in NASCAR has wrecks. As far as the racing stuff, from the cars to the pit stops to the team and the engines, the car is awesome."
Kahne wrecked out of the Daytona 500, finishing 29th. He got into the wall early in Phoenix, saying he "made a big mistake," and finished 19th in Las Vegas despite setting the track speed record when he qualified on the pole.
Last week was the most disappointing result yet — and his third straight poor finish after starting in the top 10.
He wrecked just 24 laps in at Bristol Motor Speedway when he passed the much slower Smith, but then made a little contact when he mistakenly thought he had room to move down the track, triggering the crash.
"I could have helped the situation, my spotter could have helped the situation and Regan could have helped the situation," Kahne said. "That's just kind of the way it goes. It's racing at Bristol, and I feel like I probably should have been more aware of it and knowing I was racing Regan Smith, and that we're 20 laps in, and he will wreck everybody if he can."
Kahne's car is just above the top-35 cutoff for an automatic spot in the 43-car field. If he falls below 35th at Fontana, he would be forced to qualify for upcoming races, which alters teams' preparation schedules for every weekend and could even keep Kahne out of a race if he has a weak qualifying run — an improbable fate for a Hendrick car.
Kahne dismisses the notion he's trying too hard since joining Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the high-profile Hendrick team, saying he's not doing anything new in his mental preparation. Kahne has run extremely well outside his wrecks, leaving even his most ardent fans to wonder if he's just snake-bitten.
But Kahne doesn't hear much of that negativity on Twitter, where his more than 162,000 followers keep him upbeat in a rough stretch of his career. He happily acknowledged a newfound addiction to tweeting on Friday — but only after filming an anti-texting-while-driving public service announcement.
"It's actually nice that there's a lot of positive people out there," Kahne said. "It's cool to have. It's kind of cool to read some of that stuff, try to stay more positive and be ready to go each weekend. Most of the people that talk to me are super positive, and it's fun to talk to them. Every once in a while you see somebody and you think, 'Wow, you should probably go follow someone else,' but I enjoy it. It's kind of a cool deal."
Kahne isn't the only Hendrick driver having a rough spring during a so-far winless season. Johnson has been embroiled in the drama of NASCAR's overturned penalties against five-time champion crew chief Chad Knaus, while Earnhardt ended Gordon's race last week in Bristol when he cut Gordon's left rear tire with his tailpipe while both drivers raced for position late in the race.
Earnhardt, who is having a strong season otherwise, then cost himself a likely top-10 finish by speeding on pit row. He called Gordon afterward to discuss it, and both drivers have moved past it.
"We were just racing for position," Gordon said. "I think it got a little bit more attention because it was teammates. Looking back on it, it makes our Tuesday meetings a little more interesting."