Kahne comfortable with role in limbo
SONOMA, Calif. -- Kasey Kahne was lost here last year. He'd just snapped a 37-race losing streak at the most unlikely of places, the road course at Infineon Raceway, and had to ask crew chief Kenny Francis for directions to Victory Lane.
But that was a good thing.
And Kahne's current situation seems to be a good thing even though in a way he's still lost as far as what he will do in 2011 -- or so we are led to believe.
He's in limbo, one might say.
What we know is that the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has signed a deal to drive the No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, and that team owner Rick Hendrick is responsible for getting him a ride in 2011.
What we don't know is where that ride will be, and according to Hendrick there are more possibilities than he imagined with "unbelievable calls from people in the garage."
There has been speculation that Kahne will somehow be in the No. 5 -- the personal favorite here -- even though Mark Martin insists he's not going anywhere next year. There has been speculation that he will drive a third car at Stewart-Haas Racing even though a team official says the organization isn't Plan A or Plan B.
There has been speculation that Martin or Kahne could wind up at Red Bull Racing and that organization would change from Toyota to Chevrolet, with HMS support, as was speculated last year before Red Bull re-upped with Toyota through 2012.
There has been a news report that Kahne will drive the No. 09 for Phoenix Racing with HMS support and that Martin will step into that ride with ownership in 2012. This comes even though Phoenix general manager Steve Barkdoll insists no conversations have taken place. Hendrick shot down the story as well.
Kahne doesn't seem concerned. He had a conversation with Hendrick on Friday morning at Infineon Raceway and says the topic of next year didn't come up.
"I actually just focus on what I'm doing week to week," Kahne said. "[Hendrick] said he'd take care of it. He's been an awesome guy and a great guy to talk to. What he loves to do in this sport is win races and they've done it for a long time, so I just leave it up to him.
"He said he would [have me a ride], and I stick behind that. I think it'll be a pretty awesome opportunity whatever it is next year."
Being in limbo isn't always a good thing. When Kurt Busch announced he was leaving Roush Fenway Racing after the 2005 season, the rift between him and management was ugly. It became so bad that when Busch was pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence (which it turned out he was not) before the fall race in Phoenix, he was suspended by team owner Jack Roush for the final two races even though NASCAR took no action.
"It was a lot different just because there was animosity between management and Kurt," said Pat Tryson, who was with Roush Fenway at the time. "Kurt and the guys still got along. Their animosity was just at a higher level."
Many organizations cut drivers off from team meetings so as not to let secrets they are working on for the future get taken to another team. Kyle Busch went through that at HMS in 2007 after he signed to drive for rival Joe Gibbs Racing.
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But for Kahne, life has been business as usual since the initial moment of awkwardness before this Spring's Phoenix race immediately after the team learned of his deal.
"It actually hasn't been bad at all for me," Kahne said. "The future is gonna be a little different than what it is right now, but I've had commitments, and when I make a commitment, I stick to it.
"I've stuck to it and I just want to run as well as I can and hope that everybody stays behind me and I do the best job I can until I'm done."
Nobody can blame Kahne for making this move. He's going from an organization that has made more moves to stay afloat the last three years than many go through in 20.
Even RPM management can't blame Kahne for jumping ship for an organization that has won nine of the past 15 Cup championships.
"I don't think there is anybody that would have turned that down," said Robbie Loomis, the director of race operations at RPM.
Loomis and company at RPM aren't stupid. They know the best thing for their future is to make the No. 9 team stronger than ever, even if it's for a driver that won't be there after the season.
They know that to attract sponsorship and an above-average driver, they have to have a fast car to offer.
"I'm looking at the next 22 races as we're on vacation, let's enjoy all we can with him and get the best out of it," Loomis said. "You never know what the future brings, but we do know what we have right now and that's a great race-car driver who is capable of winning races and climbing back in the Chase."
Kahne took a step in the direction of getting into the Chase with last week's second-place finish at Michigan that improved him to 21st in points. Now he returns to Sonoma, where he jump-started a run to the 2009 Chase with his first road-course win.
"I just want to finish strong," Kahne said. "I want to do everything I can to be the best driver I can throughout the rest of this year and work with my team and be committed. I think everybody here wants the same so, hopefully, it keeps going the way it is and things finish strong for us.
"I know Budweiser has really been behind us. Ford has really been behind us, and it's nice to have people like that wanting to run well before the season is done."
It's not the best situation to be in, but it's more common in an era when teams are signing drivers from other teams well before their deal is done.
"You know he's got to drive that car so you've got to keep that communication good and make him feel like he's a part of the team," said Penske Racing owner Roger Penske, who had Ryan Newman in limbo before Newman went to Stewart-Haas in 2009. "You don't want to give up the rest of the season.
"It really should be looked at as a positive."
It doesn't always turn out that way, with Kurt Busch the prime example. And the situation at Joe Gibbs Racing very easily could have turned sour when Tony Stewart asked out of the final year of his deal had Joey Logano not been waiting in the wings.
"It's kind of a mixed bag," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. "You've got to work on stuff for the future, so if you have somebody you know is leaving, how much do you tell him?
"It's also kind of freeing. Hey, we're going to go race as hard as we can. It's kind of more relaxed, not as stressful as it normally might be."
Kahne shows no sign of stress. Neither does anybody on his team. They seem to be hitting their stride with cars capable of winning the past three weeks were it not for the domination of JGR -- Denny Hamlin in particular -- with consecutive wins at Pocono and Michigan.
Kahne also doesn't seem lost, even on a track where his best finish was 23rd before last year's win.
"When I signed a deal with Rick, he said this is what I'm going to do and I'm going to work hard to give you the best opportunity next year that we can give you," said Kahne, who qualified Friday for the pole in Sunday's race. "And I signed the deal and that's what I'm sticking to. Whatever he puts together for me will be a perfect situation for next year."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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