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2011 RESULTS 1 win, 8 top fives, 15 top 10s
2012 OUTLOOK Now that he's driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne will make the Chase for the first time since '09.
ONCE AGAIN KASEY KAHNE HAS A NEW BOSS. FOR the fourth time in five seasons he will be driving for a different Sprint Cup team, which means another transition period of becoming acclimated to new teammates, crew members and support personnel, of learning faces and memorizing names.
Yet Kahne could not be happier. That's because his latest move is to powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, with its vast resources and impressive collection of championship banners. Kahne takes over for Mark Martin in the number 5 car, joining Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a star-studded stable of drivers.
Suddenly Victory Lane—and the Sprint Cup championship—seem a whole lot closer for the 31-year-old Kahne, who finished 14th in the 2011 standings while driving for Red Bull Racing. "This is exciting. It feels good," Kahne says of his new NASCAR home. "They've given me such a good opportunity, I need to take full advantage of it and perform. It may take a little time to figure everything out, but I think we can get off to a pretty quick start."
Others agree. When Brad Keselowski was asked which driver he thinks is the top candidate to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2012 after missing it in '11, he mentioned Kahne. "I think he'll fire off in that [number] 5 car pretty strong," Keselowski said. "He'll be tough."
A successful 2012 season would be more come-back than breakthrough for Kahne. Not so long ago, remember, he was one of NASCAR's top young drivers. Kahne won a season-best six races for Evernham Motorsports in '06, one more victory than Johnson had that year. But Johnson won the Cup in '06—then took four more championships in a row, all while driving for Hendrick.
Kahne, meanwhile, bounced from team to team—Evernham to Richard Petty Motorsports (after the Evernham merger with Petty Enterprises) to Red Bull—and struggled to achieve continuity and success. He was winless in 2007 and '10, has qualified for the Chase only once in the past five years ('09) and went 81 races without a victory before taking the checkered flag late last season at Phoenix.
"Each time you change [teams], it takes time to figure out the cars and get that feeling you're looking for," Kahne says. "A lot of guys are working with the same team, the same car, the same engine every year, to where they're just getting better with what they have. We're trying to learn all that and then get better once we do learn it. It's not the easiest way."