Kahne, snug in Hendrick culture, in position to contend in Chase

dscott@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 23, 2012 

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JOLIET, IL - SEPTEMBER 16: Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, greets fans during driver introductions prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 16, 2012 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images for NASCAR)

JONATHAN DANIEL — Getty

  • Today’s race Race No. 2 of 10 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup At New Hampshire Motor Speedway
  • More information 2 p.m., ESPN

— Kasey Kahne has spent much of this NASCAR season hanging around the fringes of the Chase for the Cup standings.

In his first year with Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne started the year slowly, then, picked up momentum with a mid-season hot streak. He made the Chase comfortably, albeit in one of the two wild-card spots.

Now, Kahne likes where this season has brought him, not on the fringes, but in good position to contend for his first Cup championship.

“We have kind of slowly made ground all season long since about the seventh race,” said Kahne, who starts sixth in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “We made progress and have gotten closer. Everything keeps getting better.”

Kahne is fifth in the points after finishing third last week in the Chase’s first race at Chicago. He also has plenty of reason to feel optimistic at New Hampshire. He won the July race in Loudon, his second victory of the season after Charlotte in May.

As Kahne struggled to find his way at Hendrick, he didn’t finish any higher than 14th through the season’s first six races. He then reeled off a string of seven consecutive top-10s. His victory at New Hampshire in Loudon solidified his spot as a Chase wild-card entrant and he never let go.

Kahne’s surge is a direct result of his ever-growing comfort level at Hendrick. He’s one of four HMS drivers — along with Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jeff Gordon — to be in the Chase.

“I think (it) has taken time to get to where we are,” said Kahne, who brought crew chief Kenny Francis and some other crew members with him from his one-year stint with Red Bull Racing’s now-defunct NASCAR operation. “My teammates have been able work with them and take things from Jimmie, Jeff and Dale. It’s how they explain things or the way they may do different than we have.”

And the consistency coming from Hendrick’s always-reliable engines has been an eye-opener for Kahne.

“That is something that is a first, that is a big thing,” he said. “This is probably the first time in my career I have never once had to think, ‘Man, I’m a little bit off at this point of the track, engine-wise.’

“The people are always looking for more at Hendrick Motorsports. Each week, we have a little bit better this, little bit better that. I don’t think we’ve had that (before).”

It hasn’t all been a one-way process, Kahne said.

“We have been out of the box at different companies,” he said. “We brought some of our own ideas. I like working well with people. I think just bringing a good attitude and probably wanting to be part of it is probably the best thing I can bring.”

Kahne has quickly fit into the Hendrick culture. He’s also spent time working out with Johnson. The two of them competed in a triathlon in Charleston, S.C., in July. The fitness helps Kahne in the car.

“I do a good bit of training each week,” said Kahne. “I enjoy being prepared and feeling when the race is over, I could go another 300, 400, 500 miles, whatever we had to do.”

Johnson has seen first-hand what Kahne can do, in and out of the car. And as he goes for a sixth Cup championship, he has an eye on his newest teammate.

“I feel that Kasey is a definite threat,” said Johnson. “When you look at his performance over his career, I would say end of seasons have been very strong for him. He has usually won a couple of times at that point. These are good tracks for him. This is kind of Kasey Kahne time.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14

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