CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Last season’s constant speculation over his job secuirty didn’t bother Kasey Kahne, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t grab the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s attention.
Last summer, Hendrick announced an extension of Farmers Insurance, the primary sponsor of Kahne’s No. 5 Chevrolet, through 2017, but it wasn’t until November that the team extended the driver’s Sprint Cup Series contract (which was set to expire in 2015) for another three seasons.
“I saw it, but there were a lot of other things that went on,” Kahne told MotorsportsTalk last Thursday during the preseason NASCAR Media Tour. “It’s just what it was. I didn’t really let it get to me, but I knew it was out there. It’s hard not to see it on social media.”
Last year’s rise of Chase Elliott, who won the 2014 Xfinity Series championship for JR Motorsports but is under contract to Hendrick, also fed the curiosity about Kahne’s future.
The news that Elliott, 19, would supplant Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet next season put the uncertainty to rest about Hendrick’s driver lineup – but it came as no surprise to Kahne, 34.
“I always knew Jeff wasn’t going to race a lot longer,” he said. “He’s made that clear with different conversations we’ve had, but you never knew when he would be done. Chase is still so young that I thought he would fill that seat when it was time. It would just rely on whenever Jeff was ready to get out of the car because Chase has done such an awesome job as a young man to do what he’s done. I was suspecting that would be the spot.”
Some of the conjecture about Kahne’s place was driven by performance. In his 2012 debut with Hendrick, he finished fourth in points, but he slipped to 12th in 2013 and 15th last season when he didn’t win until Aug. 31 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (snapping a 13-month winless drought with his 17th career victory.
During the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, he notched only one top 10 – a 10th at Charlotte. Hendrick moved crew chief Kenny Francis to a management role and brought in Keith Rodden (who was Kahne’s engineer for several seasons before spending 2014 as a crew chief for Jamie McMurray).’
Kahne said Rodden’s return should help shore up his team after a difficult season caused some doubts.
“As far as my performance, I wanted to be better and do better,” he said. “When I didn’t at times, things crossed my mind like, ‘Man, what is my problem. Can I not figure this out?’ Things that maybe Jeff (Gordon) mentioned had crossed his mind over the years.
“But it’s racing. I love it. I know I can do it. I know if we put the right situation together, we’re going to win a lot of races still.”
Lawrence led all 16 laps of both races after taking the holeshot in the second moto and grabbing the lead from Dylan Ferrandis in Turn 2 of Moto 1. Lawrence claimed a four-second lead in Moto 1 and five seconds in Moto 2, but as dominant as it seems on paper, there were some exciting moments during the weekend. In the second race, Lawrence wanted to build an advantage that would allow him to maintain his pace and he nearly high-sided a couple of times in heavy ruts.
In his second race back from a concussion, Ferrandis finished in the runner-up spot with a second in Moto 1 and a third in Moto 2. While his finish of second overall goes into the record books, Pro Motocross points are rewarded for each individual race and that meant Ferrandis lost eight points in championship battle to Lawrence. With Sexton failing to mount up for the race, Ferrandis advanced to second in the standings with an 18-point gap to Lawrence. Equally important, Ferrandis gained ground in the SuperMotocross World Championship (WSX) points and now has a gap of 44 over 21st-place Justin Starling.
Cooper Webb is also in his second round since returning from a Supercross injury suffered in Nashville at the end of their season. Claiming results of fourth and second in the two races, Webb earned 40 SuperMotocross points at Hangtown and closed in on Sexton in the WSX battle. Sexton entered Hangtown with a large enough lead that he could not be overtaken, but he is now only 38 points up and could face a difficult decision next week at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado if he wants to hold onto his lead.
Aaron Plessinger had an adventurous weekend in which he seemed to close on Lawrence in his second race before crashing and dropping to fourth. Coupled with a fifth-place finish in Moto 1, he earned 35 points and was credited with fourth overall.
Cashing in on confidence he gained in the final rounds of the Supercross season, Adam Cianciarulo earned his first top-five of the Pro Motocross championship after narrowly missing out last week with a sixth. He earned the distinction with consistent results of fifth in Moto 1 and fourth in Moto 2.
The Lawrence brothers made history last week as the first siblings to win in two Pro Motocross divisions on the same day. Fans should get accustomed to seeing this happen with some regularity as Hunter Lawrence posted identical results in Hangtown to those he had at Fox Raceway in the season opener.
In both races, Lawrence got off to a slow start in Moto 1 and had to claw his way back to the podium. He dominated Moto 2 in both rounds to earn the overall victories.
Justin Cooper did not allow Lawrence to gain much of an advantage in the Motocross points’ standings, however. Finishing second in both motos, the earned only one point less than Lawrence. His modest showing in Round 1 of the outdoor season has him 12 points out of first in the championship standings.
Haiden Deegan scored his first moto win in just his fourth start in the series. In the first race of the day, he had to withstand constant pressure from Cooper, but when his teammate closed in on him, Deegan reached down and found a little more speed. Now that he’s won one of these races, he has his sight set on challenging Lawrence for the title. Deegan is second in the Pro Motocross championship standings with a 10-point deficit to the leader.
RJ Hampshire rounded out the top five with a pair of fifth-place results and 32 points for the round. Even though the deficit is a whopping 61 points, Hampshire climbed to second in the SuperMotocross championship standings now that Jett Lawrence has moved to the big bikes.
Jalek Swoll struggled last week and finished 21st overall at Fox Raceway. This week, he finished on the cusp of 10th in both races with a ninth in Moto 1 and 11th in Moto 2. In the SuperMotocross standings, he has a lot of ground to make up. He currently sits 49th on the chart with a 70-point gap to Chance Hymas, who is on the bubble to earn a guaranteed position in the SMX Mains for the three playoff races that will be held on September.