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Underdog label no longer fits Kahne

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Underdog label no longer fits Kahne
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Underdog label no longer fits Kahne

One by one, the principals of Hendrick Motorsports walked onto the stage to meet the press during the Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway with their impressive credentials serving as an introduction.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the runaway 10-time most popular driver. Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion. Rick Hendrick, a winner in NASCAR's top series 209 times over. Jeff Gordon, the four-time champ and third on NASCAR's all-time win list.

And then came Kasey Kahne, the fifth Beatle, fresh with a new, polarizing haircut.

While his 14 career Sprint Cup victories are nothing to dismiss, Kahne still seemed like a scrappy fifth seed in a bracket full of No. 1s when comparing the portfolios on Hendrick's impressive roster. That's when Hendrick issued a decisive note of caution and perspective.

"I would not call Kasey Kahne an underdog," Hendrick said. "He has not had all the components around him yet and I think we're getting there. Kasey Kahne has got the talent. He can run short tracks, speedways, has an unbelievable amount of car control and is a smart race car driver. He'll win a championship. He will be a champion. He just hasn't been in the right position. I think he's in that position now."

The position Hendrick references is an enviable one for any driver, but especially for one who has withstood as much turnover as Kahne has in recent years. Although Kahne became a staple in the red No. 9 in the early stages of his career, the changes to his teams' infrastructures reached far beyond the car number.

Ray Evernham's team, which negotiated Kahne's ascension into NASCAR's big leagues, eventually became Gillett Evernham Motorsports before merging to form Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009. Petty's organization then joined forces with Yates Racing later that year.

By 2010, Kahne was ready for a move to greener, more permanent pastures. On April 13, three days after his 30th birthday, Kahne announced he would join Rick Hendrick, but not until the 2012 season as the powerhouse team navigated Mark Martin's transition to a part-time driving career. That left Kahne in a one-season whistle stop at Red Bull Racing before taking the reins of Hendrick's No. 5.

Now Kahne's position is one of growing stability and continuity, more seasoned and more familiar with the organization's system as his sophomore season at Hendrick begins.

"It's the first time in a long time we've come into the new year with the same team behind us and the same working group," said Kenny Francis, Kahne's crew chief since the final race of the 2005 season. "The past three or four years, there's been a lot of turmoil, a lot of change. Now we hope that it's just a little more relaxing getting there."

If anyone seems relaxed, it's Kahne, despite the high expectations and burbling talk of a championship run in 2013. Those expectations start from within and at the top at Hendrick, where the team made good on the owner's bold goal of landing four cars in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last season. It's the sort of confidence that can add pressure or motivation, or perhaps a healthy mix of the two.

"It's probably a little bit of both," Kahne says, "but I feel like the reason he says that is because he knows what he has. He knows the people that he has here and it didn't happen overnight. Rick's just really confident and it's neat to be a part of all that."

Kahne possessed similarly high hopes for the start of the 2012 campaign, when the team stumbled out of the starting blocks in a major letdown. By April, Kahne had claimed two pole positions but a crash, an engine failure, multiple miscues and instances of bad luck in the first six races left the team 31st in points with all the appearances of a Chase outsider.

From that resounding thud, Kahne ripped off seven consecutive top-10 finishes -- including a Coca-Cola 600 victory -- to jump 17 spots in the standings. Another, more modest run during the summer helped Kahne rally against the long odds to clinch a Wild-Card berth in the Chase.

"Even starting out slow, I always knew we had the speed and we were kind of in the ballpark," said Kahne, who eventually converted his Chase eligibility into a career-best fourth-place finish in the standings. "Once we got past the bad luck, the driving errors, the little issues we had, I thought things went pretty smoothly from that point on. ? We have a lot of things we can work on and I feel like we've looked at a lot of them throughout the offseason, so hopefully this year can start better and we can get rolling early."

The one thing that won't require much fine-tuning will be the bond between driver and crew chief, one of few constants for the two during their pre-Hendrick years. With that amount of longevity, the critical art of communication has become second nature for the pairing, which will mark Kahne's 10th Sprint Cup season as their eighth together.

That's why keeping Francis, who said he communicates with Kahne "by osmosis sometimes," was a high priority for Hendrick when he hand-picked Kahne.

"I think now Kenny's got a year under his belt. He didn't even know half the guys on the crew when he started last year," Hendrick said. "We've refined that, and I predict he won't have as rough a start this year, so I think it should be a much easier season. Every time you can go back and not change much with that chemistry between crew chief and driver and engineer, you're better off.

"It's like they've been here forever now. So I think this could be Kasey's year."


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