Commentary

Kasey Kahne is Red Bull's wild card

Updated: February 10, 2011, 3:58 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

The 2010 season was supposed to be the year when the Red Bull Racing Team started to challenge the contenders in Sprint Cup.

Brian Vickers was coming off his first appearance in the Chase. Former Formula One driver Scott Speed was hoping for big gains after learning the Cup ropes in his rookie season of 2009.

Everything appeared to be on the right path, or so it seemed. But a season of promise quickly became a year when almost every moment brought more bad news and difficult consequences.

Vickers had to get out of the No. 83 Toyota in May to deal with serious health issues involving blood clots. And Speed suffered without Vickers around to help him, eventually leading to a less-than-friendly departure from Red Bull.

What started so well couldn't have ended much worse.

[+] EnlargeKasey Kahne and Brain Vickers
Jerry Markland/Getty Images/NASCARRed Bull Racing's 1-2 punch: Kasey Kahne, left, and Brian Vickers.

"We had great expectations for 2010 going into the season," said Red Bull Racing vice president Jay Frye. "But everyone understood we couldn't fix what happened to Brian. That team was still competing at a high level when he went out. It was unfortunate the way it all panned out."

But 2011 is a new day for Red Bull. After not knowing whether he would drive a race car again, Vickers is back. He had surgery last summer to repair a hole in his heart, but his doctors have cleared him to race.

And along with Vickers' return, Red Bull has a one-year ringer. Kasey Kahne will drive a No. 4 Toyota (previously the No. 82) for the team before replacing Mark Martin in the No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. Crew chief Kenny Francis joins Kahne for the temporary stint at Red Bull.

Things certainly have changed for the better.

"Expectations are higher now than they were at the start of 2010," Frye said during the NASCAR media tour last month in Charlotte. "The time is now to go. We have no excuses. We are very confident we have two competitive teams.

"This is the first time in the history of this team that we didn't have one driver that was a development guy. Now we have two guys with a lot of experience at the Cup level. We have two very capable drivers, and the onus is on the race team. We've got to go."

In Kahne's case, it's now or never for Red Bull. Basically, he's a rental for 2011, but Frye sees it as a great opportunity for the future.

"Everybody understands what it is," Frye said. "But what's cool is Kasey can be our biggest asset to help hire his replacement. That part's good.

"Kasey understands the time is now and this year should be fun. And that team is drastically different from last season. There's no reason we can't compete for this thing."

But it is an odd situation, to say the least. Will Rick Hendrick have any input on what happens this year with his future driver?

"That was very cut and dried," Frye said. "There's no sharing of information. If something happened with Kasey, like an injury, we would call them and tell them, of course, but that's it."

It's also a strange dichotomy for Toyota. Kahne and Francis are learning Toyota technology, which they could pass on to the Hendrick Chevrolets in 2012.

Lee White, president of Toyota Racing Development, sees only positives from Kahne and Francis being part of Red Bull.

"I'd love Kasey to be in the Chase this year and threaten Rick Hendrick," White said. "It will help this team become a destination for the future. They will grow from it. There's no downside whatsoever."

Francis and Kahne will be in a rare position of having worked for all four manufacturers over a four-year span -- Dodge in 2009, Ford last year, Toyota this year and Chevrolet in 2012.

White admits the Red Bull guys were a little worried at first when Francis arrived.

I'd love Kasey to be in the Chase this year and threaten Rick Hendrick. It will help this team become a destination for the future. They will grow
from it.

-- Toyota's Lee White

"As I understand it, the team was a bit concerned whether the flow was going to be to Kenny or from Kenny," White said. "And from what they tell me, they have been building front-end parts, control arms, steering components, all sorts of things to Kenny's specifications that he brought with him.

"I'm very high on Kenny. In my opinion, he is the guy who turned around things [last year] for Roush [Fenway Racing] when they started listening to him. Now these guys [at Red Bull] have an opportunity for some of that to show up in their cars. And once you start building them, it doesn't evaporate. Now it's part of the DNA."

Richard Petty Motorsports, where Kahne and Francis were part of the No. 9 team, has a technical alliance with RFR.

Francis said he has felt welcome at Red Bull since the first day he arrived.

"I think we're all trying to get better together," Francis said. "I think a lot of that stuff is overblown about people trying to keep secrets. The last six months at RPM we were working with Roush and they didn't keep any secrets, even though they knew Kasey wasn't staying. There wasn't any holding back.

"And I'm not a type of person to have any secrets anyway. I don't believe in operating that way and I don't think any of these guys do either."

Kahne enters the season feeling he has nothing to lose.

"I think we can do a lot of good things," Kahne said. "We can run strong and have fun at the same time."

Vickers is ready to have fun again after weathering a scary time in his life.

"I grew through the good in 2009, but I probably grew more through the bad in 2010," Vickers said. "When this first happened, people came up to me that had been through it and had blood clots. I had no idea.

"We all have our own battles we struggle with. But I do believe everything happens for a reason. And you can learn through the struggles you have in life. The future is always changing, but right now I feel pretty good about it."

Everyone at Red Bull feels pretty good about where they're headed in 2011.

Terry Blount is a senior writer 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. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter