Last weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race winner at Bristol (Ten.) Motor Speedway, Kasey Kahne, participated in NASCAR’s weekly teleconference on Tuesday and discussed such things as his recent win, the new Gen-6 race car, and his relationship with long-time crew chief Kenny Francis. Here is what he had to say:
Q. Kasey, last year at this point you were 32nd in the standings and ended up finishing with your career best points finish. Now you have one victory and are seventh in points after four races. What does a strong start to the season mean to your championship hopes for 2013?
KASEY KAHNE: Well, yeah, the championship is still a long ways away, but I think a good start. Just off to a much better start than last year. Feel good about that. We got a little behind at the start of the season and fought back clearly in the last two weeks and got back to a good spot. So I feel good about where we’re at, feel good about the speed of our car and our team, and that’s what it’s all about is just being on the right page, same page with all the guys. Right now we’re really working well together and enjoying it, and we have some momentum and confidence after Bristol and really looking forward to Fontana.
I’ve always enjoyed racing there, and I think this new car is going to create a better race at that track, a more aggressive race. As slippery as Auto Club is, it’s just going to make it even a little better for us.
Q. I wanted to ask you about you and Kenny, and if you could kind of pick a couple of reasons why you feel like you two work so well together. Are you similar personalities? Is it just a comfort level you have now? And the second part of the question is when did you know that you two were going to stick together throughout all of the changes with teams and manufacturers and all of that?
KASEY KAHNE: Yeah, all right. I would say probably our personalities as far as neither one of us like talk a lot if we don’t need to. We kind of just - we talk when we feel like we need to and we’re usually on the same page I think because of that.
Between that, work ethic, he’s nonstop trying to figure out how to make his race cars faster, and I try to do everything I can to know about the car and also physically and mentally I’m as prepared as I can be. So I think we’re just - we see what each other does and really like it, and the communication is there, which is a big part of what we do, being able to communicate with someone and understand and being on the same page more often than not. So that’s key for us.
And as far as going through all the different teams and different - man, we’ve had some things thrown at us over the years, and we’ve just always stuck together. At the end of each year we’ve talked, and sometimes he’d be like, man, do you want me to still be your crew chief or do you want this or what are you thinking, and I mean, we were just always kind of up front with each other, and it was just easy to say that I don’t want anybody different for myself. I feel like he’s given me more opportunities to win in the situations we’ve been in than anybody else ever would have. I just have a lot of respect for Kenny Francis.
Q. How far along do you feel like you understand this new car after a month of racing it?
KASEY KAHNE: I feel like I understand it pretty well, between the testing last year and - you know, to me the only thing that threw me off this year was Phoenix, and that was --to me it was the tire. I mean, it was such a different tire than what we had raced there before, than what we had raced on before, and so it kind of threw me off, the feel and everything that we were looking for.
We were still decent early in the race but fell apart the last half of the race, and I would say that threw me off. I don’t think the car did. Other than that, I think the cars really reacted just how I expected it to at these other racetracks, and it’s been a good thing, and that’s why I think Fontana is going to be a solid race, better than what it’s been before, because of the grip, entry at the corner that we have now, and I think Fontana you’re usually off the gas for so long just waiting for your car to do something, and I think with the car this year we should be able to be a lot more aggressive and really push harder than what we have before.
Q. A lot of times you’re going to be testing this car obviously throughout the year with the number of tests that you get. Is there any danger to being so good so early in the sense of maybe you won’t try - you won’t just be throwing things at it to try and may not learn maybe as much as some other teams might be who are struggling?
KASEY KAHNE: Yeah, I think there’s different ways to look at that. I think our stuff is handling really well early in the season, so that’s a - just a huge effort by Hendrick Motorsports. That opens, do we test early in the year, do we wait closer to the Chase and try to learn some things when that time of the season comes along, and I think it just leaves it up to us. It gives us a we can do it when we want, when the crew chiefs think it’s the right time to test and prepare better at these tracks that we’re going to, and so I think by starting off strong it just gives us all a little bit more time to figure all this stuff out, which I think is a good thing.
Q. Although you didn’t get the results you wanted those first couple races, you’ve had really good cars in every race this year. Did you kind of reach a point of frustration there early when you didn’t get the finishes or was that pretty easy to move through?
KASEY KAHNE: The Daytona one was kind of tough on me. I’ve never had a car that fast at Daytona, at any race at Daytona, and especially the Daytona 500. That was tough to figure that out and understand how I ended up crashing when we were running single file around the top just kind of waiting because that’s all you could do with that package is you just kind of wait until later on to race.
So yeah, I was discouraged with that one, and it took me a couple days to get over it.
Phoenix we just missed it a little bit. I missed it probably with some of my feedback on the car, and we just didn’t get it done at Phoenix. So that one wasn’t as bad because we just - I think that was -- we worked hard and just didn’t hit on it, and then in the last two weeks we’ve been fast and have stepped up and finished the deal both weeks and been right there going for the win.
Q. You mentioned a few months ago about the tires at Phoenix and we’re hearing a lot of talk about tires this year and the new car. Is that a situation where once you’re on the track for the first time you can actually sort of feel the difference when the tire is different, or is it just coming in the lap times and that sort of thing?
KASEY KAHNE: No, as soon as you get on the track you can feel the tires. You can tell they’re different coming up through the gears, and by the time you get into the corner and things, you can start kind of figuring out how they handle and what it does. I’ve been on tracks before where - I was doing a tire test one time at Indianapolis, which is its own unique racetrack, and Goodyear put on the tire that we raced - at that point in time they put on the tire that we raced at California Speedway, and I came in, I ran like probably six or eight laps, and I came in, and I said, this tire makes me feel like I’m at California Speedway. Everything feels the exact same and we’re at Indianapolis, and they said, wow, that’s the California tire, no wonder. And I had no clue it was the California tire, but I felt like I was at California.
So to me tires are such a huge part of what - such a huge part of the race car and how it goes around the corner. There’s so much that goes into the tires, and Goodyear just -- they have a huge -- to me a huge responsibility to make sure that we’re racing on the best tires we can, the safest tires, the best tires to create great side-by-side racing. I know they work really hard at it, but they have a big responsibility that they take on to have the tire for NASCAR. It’s very meaningful.
Q. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seemed like whenever we had a caution, then we got the green flag on a restart, your car did not come out of the hole fast. It seemed like it took a couple of laps before the car was full of racing power. Did you feel that way or was it something that you were doing?
KASEY KAHNE: Yeah, no, I felt that way. I thought my restarts weren’t too bad, getting down the front stretch. I’ve been working really hard on that to get them better. And I felt like the majority of the restarts throughout the race I could come out in second or first if I was leading off of Turn 2. But for the next six to 10 laps I would struggle to go as fast as probably the three to four cars around me and either get past or kind of hold my position but the leader would slowly getaway maybe a half straightaway or so. And then after 10 laps my car would come in and it was like that the entire race, every run it didn’t that except on two tires it didn’t do that.
So I was kind of confused by that, but we’ve done that before. There’s been plenty of tracks over the years that for whatever reason, the way I kind of like the feel of the car or something, it doesn’t necessarily take off as good as some of the other guys the first 5 or 10 laps. Even at Vegas for 10 laps, 5 to 10 laps, I couldn’t really go fast quite as fast as some of the guys, and instantly, whether it was Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson or whoever it was, I’d reel them in, drive by them and drive away, and I felt like that was very similar to Bristol. It must just be something that I do or something that I look for in the feel of the car.
Q. Your consistency seems to be on the upswing. Do you believe in momentum, and what do good results do most for your team?
KASEY KAHNE: Yeah, I definitely believe in momentum. I know I’ve tried to work hard over the years to get more consistent because that was definitely my weak spot since I’ve been in the Sprint Cup Series. Yeah, I feel really good about where we’re at right now, and the momentum is huge. Confidence, momentum, from the driver to the pit crew to the crew chief, I mean, every aspect of putting our car on the track, I think when you have momentum and confidence it helps. I’ve been in situations before where I’ve felt like everything was fine, like I wasn’t -like I was driving every bit as hard as I usually do and all that, and then I won a race and realized, man, now I’m like rejuvenated and have a boost of energy again to race and things.
So I think it definitely helps, and sometimes you don’t realize it, but when you are on the upswing and things are going well, everybody feels it, and it’s a big part of running well.
Q. Being back on top with the No. 5 in the Hendrick Motorsports must feel rather good. Speak a little bit about getting No. 5, which is kind of a favorite of Rick Hendrick, back in the winner’s circle.
KASEY KAHNE: Yeah, it feels really good. I mean, it feels - every day I wake up and know that I’m part of Hendrick Motorsports it feels good, and then to get a win early in the season, such a competitive series and do it in the 5 car, I was -I was having a great week. I feel really good about it, and it’s great to get those calls from Mr. H, and when he’s excited and happy that we were able to pull it off and put an entire race together and win, it makes it all pretty exciting and fun. Yeah, the 5 is the car they started with, so that car needs to go to victory lane some of the time. I know the 48 visits victory lane a lot and the 24 and things, but yeah, it’s nice when we can get the 5 over there, also.
Q. Coming up there’s California, Fontana. What do you look forward to going to that race this coming weekend?
KASEY KAHNE: I look forward to just the really wide racetrack, the speeds will be up, you can move around usually from the white line all the way to the wall, just about run right against the wall on a big, two-mile racetrack, and just trying to --it’s pretty technical because of the seams there where the track is paved and then it stops and then it starts another paving section, and the seams are pretty thick, they’re pretty wide I guess you would say. So getting on top of those seams can be rough, just figuring out how to get the car go around all that stuff and make good laps. To me I’m really excited because I think we’ll be able to drive harder than we’ve ever been able to drive at Fontana in a Sprint Cup car, and I’m really looking forward to that. I think it’s going to be pretty exciting.
Q. I’m curious about one of your initial comments about explain the better race scenario for the fans. What do you anticipate the cars to do, packs of cars, two by two? If you would explain that for us.
KASEY KAHNE: Well, to me I feel like a lot of times at that track you go down the straightaway, and when you go to get in the corner you’re so loose behind other cars and the back is slippery, or the back is tight behind-or the front is tight behind other cars so you’re kind of pushing the nose, and you have to pick a lane and really ease into the corners pretty gently, I guess.
I feel like with this car, so far this year at Bristol and in Las Vegas we’ve been able to really charge the corner and push a lot harder every lap of the race run, and I think it’ll be the same way at Auto Club.
I just think that you’re going to be able to drive it in the corner harder, make more aggressive moves getting into the corner and through the middle of the corner, and that’s something that we haven’t had there before. So to me it’s going to create a much better race to where you’ll be able to pass and make those moves a little bit easier is what I’m hoping for.
Q. You have your short track and your long track cars. Is there any kind of a lucky charm in taking the Bristol car and retrofitting it to California to just take that momentum with you to another race?
KASEY KAHNE: Well, I kind of beat that car up a little bit late in the race, made contact with a couple guys, and it won’t be available this weekend.
But we raced that same car at Phoenix, and it’s a really good car. The car we raced at Las Vegas was a great car, and that’s what we’re taking to California - no, I don’t think that’s the car we’re taking to California, never mind. But it’s in good shape for Texas or whatever the next track will be. I think California will be a new car, which will be I’d imagine just as good as the other ones, and they’ve been really fast.
Q. Taking you off the track for a quick second, are you glad the race season is underway and you’re not asked to do Dancing With the Stars?
KASEY KAHNE: Absolutely. I race. That’s all I really want to do is race cars. I’ve been able to my whole life, and I enjoy it. I love every bit of it. To be able to think about racing each week, whether we’re doing appearances or testing or whatever it may be during the week and then you get to go and race a Sprint Cup car on Saturday or Sunday from here until the end of November, I’m loving what’s going on.
Q. No Dancing With the Stars in your future?
KASEY KAHNE: Well, I don’t know how to dance, so I don’t think I’ll ever go on that show. It wouldn’t be a good one for me.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR