Even when things went bad for Kasey Kahne last weekend at Richmond International Raceway, he still scored a top-10 finish.
That’s the kind of campaign it has been for him – a change from the last three years when his number of top-10 finishes declined each season.
Powered by a fast car and enthused by a reunion with Keith Rodden, Kahne is sixth in the points heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. But more work remains for Kahne to be a regular contender for wins.
Kahne credits Rodden with reinvigorating the team. Rodden served as Kahne’s engineer from 2004-13 before leaving to be Jamie McMurray’s crew chief last season. Rodden returned after last year to serve as Kahne’s crew chief.
Kahne said a key change is the additional meetings – often held on Tuesday’s before the competition meeting with all four Hendrick teams – Rodden has scheduled with the No. 5 team.
“It seems to have helped not just me, but it seems to have helped the whole team,’’ Kahne told NASCAR Talk. “I just think our guys are way more aware of what’s getting to happen each week. There’s just a lot more communication than we have had.’’
Rodden, a sports fan who learns by watching coaches, calls it having his team engaged.
It’s a trait Rodden noticed by watching San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has led the Spurs to four NBA championships. Rodden also learned similar lessons from interactions with Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and Duke football coach David Cutcliffe, the national coach of the year in 2013.
“If your crew guys aren’t engaged, they don’t care,’’ Rodden told NASCAR Talk. “So far, everyone is engaged.’’
That helped the team overcome its poor qualifying performance last week at Richmond. Kahne qualified 40th after being the fastest in the final practice session. Although the team was flummoxed with the lack of qualifying speed, it found the right combination for the race. Kahne needed less than 100 laps to make it into the top 10 and went on to finish sixth.
Consider other signs of the team’s turnaround this year:
- Kahne ranks first in the series in quality passes – the times a driver passes a car running in the top 15 under green-flag conditions. Kahne ranked third last year.
- Kahne ranks second in laps run in the top 15 at 88.4 percent (Kevin Harvick is first at 92.5 percent). Kahne ranked 14th last year.
- Kahne ranks second to Harvick (5.2) in average running position at 9.5. Kahne ranked 14th last year.
For all that Kahne has done, though, there’s an area that needs improvement. He has not been able to carry his strong runs during a race into equal finishes. Kahne’s average position midway through a race is 7.1 but his average finish is 13.7. That is the largest decline among any driver in the top 15 in points.
Circumstances have caused some of that drop. A penalty at Atlanta late in the race for an uncontrolled tire dropped Kahne out of a top-10 spot and he finished 14th. Kahne was 11th with 20 laps to the scheduled distance at Auto Club but got caught in a slow lane on a restart and finished 17th.
At Richmond, Kahne made progress. He was sixth at the midway point and finished there.
Kahne is confident what Rodden and the team is doing will lead to better finishes.
“I feel like the direction we’re going is going to take us there,’’ said Kahne, who has scored top-10 finishes in two of the last three races. “As of right now, we’ve ran really well in a lot of races and we actually don’t have the results that we should in some of those instances, and in others, we’ve fallen off later in the race. We’re definitely not where we want to be, but we’re much closer and we’re staying after it.’’