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Oh, those new team blues...but it looks like Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis are finally on a roll

Oh, those new team blues...but it looks like Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis are finally on a roll

Blue skies now for Kasey Kahne (R) and long-time crew chief Kenny Francis

   By Mike Mulhern

   The season started sourly for Kasey Kahne, and his first weeks with Rick Hendrick were, well, here are the ugly numbers:
    Daytona, 29th.
   Phoenix, 34th.
   Las Vegas, 19th.
   Bristol,  37th.
   California,  14th.
   Martinsville, 38th...and that after winning the pole.
   Finally, the tide appeared turning, and he and crew chief Kenny Francis, the man who's run Kahne's teams for several car owners now, with several different manufacturers,  pulled off seven straight top-10s, including a solid victory in the Charlotte 600.
   Then -- should we call it a new team jinx -- bad news again. Crashes at Pocono and Michigan, followed by a limp 14th at Sonoma.
   So when Kahne headed to Kentucky two weeks ago, his season was spiraling down again. He had dropped to 17th in the standings, a whopping 175 point (essentially finishing positions) behind tour leader Matt Kenseth.
   Clearly if Kahne was going to make anything more out of this season, something had to change.
   And maybe it did -- his luck.
   At Kentucky, though he never led, Kahne put on a surprising, stirring charge to nearly catch winner Brad Keselowski.
   At Daytona last weekend he was so-so but okay, seventh.
   And now another 'breakthrough' win perhaps here Sunday.


 Oh, those Makris lobsters: now this one's going to be some good eating (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "We've had speed since the drop of the first green flag....but I made mistakes, and we've had some issues on some of those DNFs," Kahne says. 
    "We've been fast all year.  It's nice we've now been able to put 10 or 11 top-10s... since that horrible start.
    "I feel good about where we're at.
    "When we won Charlotte that really boosted our team. 
    "We ran really well for about eight or nine weeks. 
    "Then went to Pocono (early June), had as good a car as anybody...got a right-front down at the end, made contact with another car, hit the wall, lost a lot of the points we had just gained. 
    "Charlotte to me was a big turning point for us.  It got our team really excited and going."


 The power behind Kasey Kahne: crew chief Kenny Francis (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Francis and Kahne arrived at Hendrick's with a lot of new ideas; Francis is one of the more interesting and creative crew chiefs in the sport, which is why Ray Evernham picked him back when.
    "We took a lot of our ideas to Hendrick Motorsports," Francis said. "We finished the year off really strong. So when we came over, we had a lot of fresh ideas we had incorporated into the cars."
   But Hendrick's operation is, like any huge operation, sometimes difficult to get moving in a different direction.
  So Francis and his new ideas "took a little bit of doing, getting that stuff rolling."
   However a terrible run of luck bogged the team down.
    "We had some speed....we just had a few issues," Francis said. "We crashed when we shouldn't have crashed.  We had some engines break.  We had a few bad pit calls that got us messed up, in poor position, then got in a wreck. 
    "But things like that happen.  
    "We knew the cars were really fast and we had a good thing coming together. 
    "It's just a matter of getting all the gears meshing.  We started doing a lot better lately.
    "But even like at Michigan (mid-June) -- we had an accident.  We were experimenting with some stuff that didn't work."


   With two tour wins now heading into the last break of the season, Kasey Kahne is looking strong in the championship picture....finally (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    And don't underestimate the luck factor in this sport.
    This 301 was Denny Hamlin's all the way...until his four-tire stop near the end cost him track position...and the win.

    Kahne, on luck: "You have good luck at times, bad luck at times. 
    "Some of ours wasn't bad luck -- at Phoenix it was straight-up driver error. 
    "But, yes, the luck changed.  We had great luck -- for those guys to miscommunicate, that helped us a ton. 
    "I'll take 'em any way we can."

     So Kahne stole it?
   "I wouldn't say stolen," Kahne protested. "We ran in the top-four the whole race. 
   "I was catching Denny on long runs.  He was probably four seconds down at one time, and I got it down to two or a second and a half when we pitted."
   Kahne had a great view of the key moment in the race:
   "Denny was pitting right in front of me....came in right in front of me. 
    "As they dropped his right-side jack, right before we dropped ours, they were jacking his left-side up.  I knew he was getting four.
    "As I left the pits, I looked in my mirror, and there were tons of cars coming out on two tires.  I knew we would have a gap and give some time.
     "If he was to keep track position (by only changing two tires), I never would have passed him." 
    Miscommunication, Hamlin conceded.
    Finally some good luck for Kahne and Francis, though: "We sure had some we had stolen from us, so it feels good to steal one from somebody else," Francis said with a laugh.

    Is this the year that Kahne finally makes a solid run at the championship?
     "I've been buried in the points not just this year -- I've been back there other times," Kahne says of the never-ending points chasing game.
    "You get in the back of the pack when you're racing, even when you have a strong race going, something happens and you end up in the back. 
    "There are a lot of things thrown at you when you're driving at this level.... so many things thrown at you."
     The response, Kahne says, also helped him in last weekend's triathlon: "More than anything, it's passion and heart... just going for it.
     "In that final mile of that triathlon I was like 'Man, just start walking, this is hard.'
    "Then I told myself 'You'd better not.'
    "I kept going and finished off pretty strong."
   Maybe that's a harbinger of what to expect from Kahne and Francis from here on this season.




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