Comeback Kahne? Kid's on a roll
Kasey Kahne is making a comeback a couple of weeks shy of his 29th birthday.
A comeback? Before he reaches 30?
It sounds a little odd, for sure. Sports comebacks usually happen much later in an athlete's career. But in this case, "comeback" is as good a word as any to describe the resurgence Kahne is enjoying in 2009.
After making the Chase in 2006 (his third Cup season), it appeared Kahne was on his way to competing as a championship contender for many years to come. The Enumclaw, Wash., native won a series-best six races that season.
One year later, he was winless and finished 19th in the standings. In 2008, he again failed to make the Chase, ranking 14th.
Cup's rising star was beginning to look like a one-hit wonder. But he did win twice in 2008, along with a victory in the Sprint All-Star event, so signs of a turnaround were emerging.
This season, Kahne ranks sixth in the standings after the first five races in the No. 9 Dodge. He finished a season-best fifth on Sunday at Bristol, Tenn., his second consecutive top-10.
"We've made gains the last two weeks," Kahne told reporters after the Bristol race. "The first three races, I felt like we were on the edge and not sure really which way we were going. The last two weeks, everybody at Petty Motorsports has done an awesome job on this Budweiser Charger, and we've made some nice gains."
That new team name -- Richard Petty Motorsports -- brought a lot of uncertainty regarding how the merger of Petty Enterprises with Gillett Evernham Motorsports (where Kahne has raced all six years of his Cup career) would go.
Could a struggling Petty team really help make the Evernham team better?
So far, so good. Mark McArdle, vice president of competition for RPM, likes what he sees.
"If I was to give us a letter grade, I would probably give us a B," McArdle said on a conference call last week. "We've underperformed at times and performed to our potential at times. We're in a building program that I think has the potential to get stronger week by week."
Gillett Evernham Motorsports was in transition long before the Petty merger came along. George Gillett bought controlling interest in the team from Ray Evernham in August 2007.
The organization failed to place a driver in the Chase the past two seasons. Kahne was the driver paying the biggest price while the team tried to find its identity.
But the merger with Petty has brought an iconic name, along with two experienced professionals in Robbie Loomis and Dale Inman.
"The integration has been very seamless and very easy I think," McArdle said. "Petty Enterprises has been dissolved, and the pieces and parts have gone their separate ways. So bringing in Richard, Robbie and Dale has really been the only task in changing our direction.
"In saying that's all there was, I'm probably understating it. Bringing Richard's name and experience, Dale's incredible depth of knowledge and Robbie's ability and experience is invaluable. It has impacted every level of the company."
It shows. A.J. Allmendinger ranks 16th in the standings in a car that was supposed to run a partial scheduled. Now RPM is trying to find the sponsorship to keep him on the track.
Elliott Sadler, after taking legal action to keep his job in the offseason, ranks 17th, higher than where he finished in each of the past three seasons. Only Reed Sorenson has struggled. He ranks 29th.
But the biggest beneficiary has been Kahne, who is starting to resemble the Kahne of 2006, whom almost everyone saw as a future Cup champion.
"I'm real happy with where are right now," Kahne said. "I think [RPM] has come a long way as compared to where we were in California and Las Vegas earlier this season. We gained a lot with setups and things that we changed on the car.
"Our whole organization has done a great job getting the most points we could every race. I feel like our team is really good and we're in a good position."
Both Dodge organizations have improved over last season. Kurt Busch, who drives the No. 2 Dodge for Penske Racing, won at Atlanta two weeks ago and ranks second in the standings.
All the Chargers have a slight alteration on the nose of the car this season, which could account for some of the improvement. Penske Racing also is using a new Dodge engine (the R6), but RPM still is using the R5.
"I think at some point we'll get it and we need it," Kahne said of the new engine. "If we're going to be a Dodge team, we need to have that engine."
McArdle said RPM wanted to get through the first 10 events this season before considering a switch to the new motor.
"In the first 10 races, you're statistically going to stabilize your points position plus-or-minus about six positions," McArdle said. "We wanted to ensure our spots and be a little bit on the safe side with regard to reliability while we continue to develop the R6."
As for exactly when the switch will come, McArdle said it depends on "where we find ourselves and what the circumstances are."
For Kahne, the circumstances have changed for the better, and he finds himself a contender again.
"We have a ways to go," Kahne said. "But we've definitely done a good job up to this point."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at email@example.com.