Things were especially difficult in 2011, when Kahne was the lamest of ducks. Not only was he driving under a one-year contract for Red Bull while waiting to join Hendrick, but midway through the schedule Red Bull announced it would fold its NASCAR team at season's end. After the 26 races that set the Chase field, Kahne was a distant 21st in the standings with only three top five finishes.
It would have been easy for Kahne to give up on the season and go through the motions. Instead he accumulated the third-most points of any driver during the 10 Chase races, with five top five finishes and seven top 10s. He finished outside the top 15 only once during that span, and he held off the top two title contenders, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, to win that Phoenix race on Nov. 13. "If I'm in a race car, I want to do the best that I can," Kahne said after the race. "It feels great to get a win for Red Bull."
The one constant for Kahne has been crew chief Kenny Francis, who has worked with him since 2006. Francis is making the move to Hendrick along with several former Red Bull crew members, joining an organization that Kahne says is committed to success.
"They're always working to get better, no matter how they're performing," Kahne says of Hendrick Motorsports. "When they're winning races, they're still trying to figure out how to get more horsepower. Everybody has ups and downs, but they ride that line a little bit higher."
In the case of Kahne, team owner Rick Hendrick didn't wait for things to go downhill with Martin in the number 5 car. Hendrick made a preemptive strike, signing Kahne for this year in April 2010, only a few months after the then-51-year-old Martin had completed a five-victory season. Kahne's deal with Hendrick Motorsports runs through '15.
"I've watched Kasey compete for a long time, and he's just so impressive," says Hendrick. "The talent is there to win races and compete for championships, and he has all the intangibles that make him a great teammate and extremely marketable from a sponsor standpoint. We're in a situation where we can build a long-term, successful program around him, and those opportunities don't come around very often. All the pieces are in place."