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Kasey Kahne on recent turnaround: “We’re all enjoying (racing) again”

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – Kasey Kahne has again found the enjoyment that comes with being a racecar driver.

“It’s fun to drive (the cars),” Kahne told NBC Sports about how well the No. 5 team has been performing lately. “It’s great to work with everybody right now and we’re all enjoying (racing) again.”

In the last 10 races, Kahne has earned six top-10 finishes, including a season-best third place at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks ago. Kahne has been noticeably happier around the Sprint Cup Series garage while praising Hendrick Motorsports for the cars the organization has been bringing to the racetrack.

It’s a much different scene from the first half of the season. With just six top-10 finishes in the first 17 races, including one DNF, Kahne and crew chief Keith Rodden struggled to find a common balance. The areas the team worked in didn’t translate to any improvements. Kahne failed to make the Chase for the second consecutive year.

Then suddenly, the team hit on it.

“They’ve all been working in the right areas, which you can work really hard in other areas and not always make those gains but for whatever reason, this swing at it the guys have worked in all the right areas,” Kahne said. “They’ve all worked together, put their heads together and figured where we were lacking and how we need to be better. And we’re still getting better each week, still improving, which is great, especially this time of year for Jimmie (Johnson) and Chase (Elliott), who are battling for a championship. To still have the cars being improved is incredible.”

When asked in what specific areas the team worked to find improvements, Kahne noted the biggest difference didn’t have to do with the car at all. Yes, he admits, Hendrick Motorsports has found more speed, but his group of guys has also worked hard at being better together. That includes the communication between engineers and the crew chiefs and the trust they have in what Kahne is saying.

“Things that we didn’t have early in the year and we’ve been building, making better each week for the last seven or eight,” Kahne said.

That includes the relationship between Kahne and Rodden. Kahne admits it took time for the two to get on the same page. Rodden analyzed things one way. Kahne communicated things in another. There was also a certain feel the driver was looking for.

“So it took some time to get that trust in each other and the direction we need to go and both of us be behind one another,” Kahne said. “Not just him being behind me, but me being behind him, and that goes along with our engineers, as well.”

Now, Kahne says he and Rodden talk every day, every week. While he has yet to lead a lap this season, Kahne has nine consecutive top-15 finishes, which lead the series. His average finish since Bristol in late August has been 9.0, which is second-best in the series.

Kahne considers it being back on a high. The team survived the low, which he said goes back to last year, and stayed together. It makes it more fun, Kahne said, to make the improvements they have. The goal is to end the year on this high and build toward 2017.

With his contract at Hendrick Motorsports expiring at the end of the 2018 season, Kahne stated in August if he hasn’t performed by then, he would “need to leave.” Kahne stands by his statement, but that doesn’t mean he’s put any additional pressure on himself.

“That’s why I’m here,” Kahne said. “I’m racing in the Sprint Cup Series to perform and to do well and to be at Hendrick Motorsports you have that opportunity because Mr. (Hendrick) gives it to us. There were times we were maybe a little behind as a company, but overall, everything’s right there and it’s how we take it and what we do with it as a team. We’ve been doing a much better with it. If we keep doing this, then our performance is going to keep improving and we’ll be winning races again and everybody’s going to be happy.”

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Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger unveil Darlington throwback schemes

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Both Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger have revealed the paint schemes they’ll drive in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott will use his No. 24 Chevrolet to pay tribute to the car his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, drove in his first Cup start.

The light blue look was on his No. 9 car when he started in the Feb. 29, 1976 race at Rockingham Speedway.

The car was revealed on Facebook in the below video.

AJ Allmendinger will pay tribute to two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte with his No. 47 Chevrolet.

The car will resemble the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile that Labonte drove in during the 198 Cup season when he competed for owner Billy Hagan.

NASCAR America: Felix Sabates: ‘I’m lucky to be here’ after near-death experience from illness last year

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For nearly a month last year Felix Sabates was at death’s door.

The fears were so great that Sabates might not wake up from a coma he spent 29 days in, Chip Ganassi bought a blue suit for the possibility he might have to attend his co-owner’s funeral.

But the 71-year-old made a full recovery through a rehab process that included learning to walk again.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Sabates have a special relationship. Petty drove the No. 42 car for Sabates’ SABCO Racing for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, winning six of his eight Cup races for the millionaire owner from Cuba.

Sabates sat down with Petty to discuss the ordeal, which began in January 2016 when Sabates began feeling ill during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I came home and woke up the next morning and I (couldn’t) breath,” said Sabates, who drove himself to the hospital. “The minute they saw me I was in intensive care.”

Sabates was in the hospital for two and half weeks before he was released, but Sabates “should’ve know I wasn’t cured.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner returned to his usual grind until it caught up to him in August.

“My blood pressure was through the roof, my oxygen level was 55, which you should be dead then,” recalled Sabates, who has no memory of a three-month stretch. “They thought was I was brain-dead. They were pretty much going to disconnect me. So 4 o’clock in the morning, they took my tubes out.”

That’s when Sabates began the process of waking up.

“I’m lucky to be here,” said Sabates, who aside from being back at the track is also back to playing golf.

“I used to worry about little things,’ Sabates said. “Now I don’t even worry about big things.”

The full feature will air Sunday on Countdown to Green, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN before the Cup race at Pocono.

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney glad Team Penske news is finally out in the open

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On Wednesday it was finally announced that Ryan Blaney would move from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske full-time next year in the Cup Series in the No. 12 Ford while Paul Menard will take over the No. 21 Ford.

NASCAR America’s Dave Burns caught up with Blaney on Thursday. Blaney was happy that his 2018 plans were finally public knowledge.

Blaney also acknowledged how a technical alliance between the two teams helped Wood Brothers Racing return to a competition level that allowed Blaney to get his first Cup win this season earlier this year.

“That was a big deal,” Blaney said. “That was getting us to where we could run a full-time season. That was really helpful not only to me but to (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, will be coming with me to the 12 car.”

Blaney has been driving for Team Penske part-time in the Xfinity Series since 2012.

“It’s been nice to get the news and tell everybody finally about what we’re doing,” Blaney said. “But mainly we’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big. That’s on my bucket list for this year and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The No. 21 team returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, the site of Blaney’s first Cup win last month.

Watch the video for the full interview.

Numbers add up for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Pocono

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Just six races remain for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the playoffs in his final NASCAR Cup season.

Earnhardt is ranked 22nd in the NASCAR Cup standings and there are only four open positions — that could shrink further with additional first-time winners in 2017 in the next six races — left for winless drivers to qualify for the 16-driver playoffs strictly on points.

As a result, Earnhardt and his fans know that with each passing race where the No. 88 remains winless, the urgency to win even just one race to make the 10-race playoffs increases exponentially.

Junior’s fans may be heartened to hear some positive tidbits about his chances this weekend at Pocono Raceway, courtesy of RacingInsights.com.

  • Did you know that during Junior’s nine-plus year tenure with Hendrick Motorsports, he’s earned the most top-fives at Daytona (seven in 20 starts) and … this may come as a surprise … at Pocono (seven in 18 starts).
  • Earnhardt also has six top fives both at Martinsville and Michigan (18 starts each), and five top fives at Phoenix and Talladega (also 18 starts each).
  • Of Hendrick Motorsports’ last 10 wins, Jimmie Johnson has won eight, Kasey Kahne won last Sunday’s Brickyard 400 and Earnhardt’s most recent Cup win came on Nov. 15, 2015 at Phoenix Raceway.
  • Earnhardt has gone 39 races since his last win.
  • Earnhardt won both races at Pocono in 2014. In the four races he’s been in since then, he’s finished fourth (mid-summer 2015) second (early 2016 race) — meaning he’s had four top-five finishes in his last six starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
  • He also was 11th in the early 2015 race there. His only finish lower than 11th came last month at Pocono when he completed just 58 of the scheduled 160 laps before his motor expired.
  • In 34 career Cup starts at the Tricky Triangle, Earnhardt has two wins, 11 top fives, 15 top 10s and one pole.
  • Earnhardt is ranked sixth for most laps led by winless drivers this season, with 24 laps led. By comparison, Kyle Busch has led 1,040 laps, the most of all winless drivers in 2017.

Add all those elements together and could Junior’s best chance up to now to win and lock in a playoff berth come this Sunday?

We’ll soon find out.

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