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Kasey Kahne still smiling despite recent racing setbacks

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Kasey Kahne’s NASCAR season and career were cut short in September because of dehydration issues. Ten races into his return to driving sprint cars full-time, he was injured and has not competed since late March. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return.

“It’s been a rough year for me and racing,” Kahne tells NBC Sports, standing in his race shop, near one of the sprint cars he should be getting ready to drive. 

Even as he speaks about all the disappointment in the last eight months, he smiles.

“I’m still happy,” Kahne says, shortly after having hugged 3-year-old son Tanner. “I know it won’t be long and I’ll be fine and then, hopefully, these rough years are behind me.”

Kahne smiles again.

Kasey Kahne signs autographs for fans during a recent open house at his race shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It’s the look many NASCAR fans know well. Although Kahne is 39 years old, he looks much like the 23-year-old rookie who grabbed so much attention when he finished second in three of his first seven starts in NASCAR’s premier series. Kahne remains as thin as those days and ready to race. 

He just can’t now because of his undisclosed injury.

So he waits and stays busy.

“I feel like I’m way too young to not work or anything like that,” Kahne says. “Always working on ideas to do.”

As for his racing, Kahne isn’t sure. He was injured in a March 29 flip at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He hopes to be cleared by July 1 so he can spend the summer racing. That way he’ll be better prepared for the Knoxville Nationals (Aug. 7-10). 

If he’s not cleared by July 1, he says he doesn’t anticipate being ready to run at Knoxville a year after his team, Kasey Kahne Racing, won the Nationals with driver Brad Sweet.

Kahne looks forward to racing again based on how the sprint car season started.

“It was really up and down, but we were making a lot of gains and I was making a lot of gains,” Kahne says. “I felt the final two races before I went out for a bit were my best two, and I was heading in the right direction.”

James McFadden will drive Kasey Kahne’s car until Kahne returns. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I think right now my car that James McFadden is going to drive is going to be awesome for him because we’re in a good direction. I’m really hoping he has a lot of success over the next month or maybe the next two months.”

With being out of the car, Kahne is enjoying more time with friends and family. He watched the All-Star Race. He hosted a barbecue the night of Coca-Cola 600 qualifying last week and spent Sunday watching the races.

Seeing Clint Bowyer swing at Ryan Newman after the All-Star Race brought back a particular memory for Kahne.

“Me and Kevin Harvick got into it once at Phoenix,” Kahne says of their battle for fourth late in Kahne’s rookie year. “We were like running tight, super close. After the race, I bumped him and actually was just saying good race, and I think he was thinking I was mad at him. Instantly, the veteran is going to get pissed, which I totally understand now.

“He’s at my car before I’ve shut it off. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do. Then (Kahne’s crew chief) Tommy Baldwin is mad. It was funny how that all worked. That was kind of like we were mad at each other but we weren’t after we talked.”

Last weekend’s races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway brought back other memories for Kahne. 

Three of his 18 career Cup wins came in the Coca-Cola 600. His last Cup victory was in 2017 at Indy. He is one of eight drivers who have won both the 600 and Brickyard 400 in their careers. 

Three of those drivers are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame (Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon). A fourth will be inducted in January (Bobby Labonte). Three others are future Hall of Famers (Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick). 

Kahne counts his third Coca-Cola 600 victory as among his most memorable because it was his first with Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.

He recalls much of what happened during his Brickyard 400 win but not much afterward. He was dehydrated after that race, showing signs of what would force him out of the car in 2018.

“The problem with the Brickyard is that I was do dehydrated and stuff and throwing up and just felt horrible and all I wanted to do was to go to sleep and I didn’t get to enjoy the win,” Kahne says. “It took until Wednesday before I even felt halfway decent.”

His condition became more challenging and led to last year’s Southern 500 being his final Cup race.

“An hour to go in that race, I said you better never do this again,” Kahne recalls of that race where he battled dehydration and went to the infield care center after finishing 24th. “This is not good.

“Then after I felt better like the next Friday, I was like I need to race some more.”

Kasey Kahne signs diecast cars for a fan at Kasey Kahne Racing’s open house earlier in May. (Photo: Dustin Long)

He didn’t get the chance in NASCAR. The longer races made it challenging for his body because he was sweating so much. He announced in October that he had not been cleared to race the rest of the season. Having previously said 2018 would be his last in Cup, his career in that series ended. 

While he can’t compete in the long races of NASCAR, the shorter sprint car races are not a problem for Kahne.

He looks forward to getting back into the car. Although Tanner, who has enjoyed all the extra time with his father, expressed other feelings the other day.

“He doesn’t like me getting into race cars any more,” Kahne says. “If I get in one, he tells me to get out. Just because he’s glad that I’m home and not racing.

“I know he likes racing. He had fun when we were at the track.”

Kahne can’t wait to go back as a driver instead of just a car owner.

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After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.

William Byron rallies to score top 10 in first Cup playoff race

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LAS VEGAS — William Byron called his first Cup playoff race “crazy.”

Contact with Ryan Blaney, a spin after a tire went down, help from a teammate to stay on the lead lap and a different pit strategy were all events in Byron’s seventh-place finish Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He was one of three Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish in the top 10. Chase Elliott was fourth and Alex Bowman placed sixth.

Byron’s day allowed him to gain four spots in the points — most among the playoff drivers — and go from 13th, outside a cutoff spot, to ninth with two races left in the opening round. The series races at Richmond next.

But Byron’s top 10 wouldn’t have happened had he and his Chad Knaus-led team not persevered during an up-and-down night.

“You think about all the things that can go wrong in a race,” Byron said. “It’s tough. You’ve got to really manage the whole race and recover through things that happen. It seems like every car had something happen during this race. You’ve got to recover from it.”

Byron had been running in the top 10 when he had contact with Blaney on the restart to begin the final stage.

“I’ll be honest with you, I just heard about it,” Blaney said after finishing fifth. “I didn’t even know that I touched him. It must have been barely. Obviously, it wasn’t intentional. I was just trying to slow him down. I didn’t know that I got him. I feel bad for it. Obviously I didn’t  mean to get him. Just trying to sidedraft hard. That’s definitely not what I meant to do.”

Even so, the contact led to a tire rub. While Byron continued to run, the situation got worse and the tire went flat. He spun just before entering pit road to bring out the caution on Lap 182.

Byron quickly made it down pit road after the spin. Knaus had the team change the two left side tires to keep Byron on the lead lap. It helped that Elliott was leading. Elliott backed off behind the pace car down the frontstretch, giving Byron a cushion to exit the pits and remain on the lead lap. That allowed Byron to return to the pits on the next lap and change four tires and add fuel.

“I definitely owe him a big thank you,” Byron said of Elliott. “It was great that we were able to stay on the lead lap there.”

With a caution a few laps later, Byron was 22nd. Knaus brought Byron down pit road to add fuel and change four tires. Few cars stopped then. Knaus’ strategy allowed Byron to stay out longer than most cars and lead six laps before pitting on Lap 236 of the 267-lap race. Needing less fuel, the team only changed two tires for a quicker stop and that helped Byron score his second consecutive top 10.

It also helped how well the Hendrick cars ran, something Elliott, sixth in the points, noted afterward.

“I felt like we were closer today than we have been in the past few weeks,” said Elliott, who overcame contact on a restart that forced him to pit to fix a tire rub. “That was nice. Hopefully we can have cars like that the next nine weeks.”

Bowman said his car improved after early struggles.

“We just didn’t fire off very good,” he said. “As the race ran, we got our car much better. I think kind of the in-between from day to night was the best we were. When it grouped up there at the end, it helped out some of the other cars. But, proud of my guys. I wish we would have gotten some more stage points, but we’ll take sixth.”

Bowman fell to 11th in points. He’s 10 points ahead of Ryan Newman in 13th. The top 12 after the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval in two weeks will be eliminated.