Kahne provides needed boost for Petty team
Star driver Kasey Kahne has been openly unhappy with RPM’s slow development of an improved Dodge motor, and the organization can’t shake whispers about its long-term stability.
A win can cure most of those ills.
Kahne returned team co-owner Richard Petty to Victory Lane for the first time in over a decade with a much-needed win—on a road course, of all places—at Infineon Raceway on Sunday.
It snapped a 37-race winless streak for Kahne, who last won at Pocono a year ago, and the first win for a Petty-owned car since John Andretti’s victory at Martinsville in April, 1999.
“I feel just as good as (Kahne) does,” The King, clad in his trademark cowboy hat and sunglasses, said before he sipped on a congratulatory glass of red wine. “It’s great, man. It’s great.”
Petty’s race team teetered on the verge of collapse at the end of last season and needed a January merger with Gillett-Evernham Motorsports to secure the storied NASCAR team. Rebranded as Richard Petty Motorsports, the four-car organization kicked off the season with a strong showing at the Daytona 500.
But it’s been a rough ride, since.
Team manufacturer Chrysler is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and funding to RPM has slowed to a crawl as Dodge restructures. The team laid off nine employees earlier this month while slashing salaries across the board, leading to quiet questions the last few weeks about a perceived financial instability.
Just Saturday, majority team owner George Gillett agreed to sell the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens in a deal that should help him fight any solvency issues.
It’s made for a frustrating season for Kahne, the star of the team, who at times this year has been vocal about RPM’s slow progress. His criticism prompted team officials to push out a new Dodge engine, and the improved motor had given Kahne hope that there’s reason for optimism.
Now he has his first victory on a road course—a remedy for any disgruntled driver.
“To me, we started the season a little bit behind,” Kahne said. “But it gave the guys that work at Richard Petty Motorsports a chance to build some better race cars, some better engines and work on the setups. It’s paid off. Today was a bonus, and it shows that we do have a lot of smart, really good people who work hard.”
Crew chief Kenny Francis said the business issues have been unsettling, even as the No. 9 team began to turn a corner and put together consistent runs. Kahne has collected three top-10s and his first win of the season in the past five races.
“It’s definitely tough times right now economically, everybody is feeling the pinch,” Francis said. “What we’ve tried to do is not let it distract us. It’s been difficult, really, to not let that distract you.”
Using humor, Petty tried to put his people at ease.
“From the financial end, we’ll definitely be there next week,” he joked. “We’ve got enough money to do that.”
The victory moved Kahne to 13th in the standings, one spot shy of qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He’s just three points outside the top 12 in what’s shaping up to be an intense 10-week push to qualify for the title hunt.
Stewart, an accomplished road racer, finished second and was followed by Marcos Ambrose, who blew a motor in Saturday’s practice that forced him to start at the back of the field and forfeit his third-place qualifying position.
Jimmie Johnson was fourth and was followed by Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya, who moved up two spots in the standings to take the 12th Chase position.
AJ Allmendinger, Kahne’s teammate at RPM, was seventh and Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon and RPM driver Elliott Sadler rounded out the top 10.
Kahne led the final 38 laps but had to stave off a final charge from Stewart on an overtime finish.
Scott Speed’s spin with two laps to go set up one final restart, and under a NASCAR rule started three races ago, Kahne and Stewart were side-by-side on the restart. Kahne zipped to the front from the outside, then pulled down in front of Stewart to firmly take control.
It was Kahne’s first win on a road course, a circuit the former sprint car star never expected to conquer.
“I learned how to drive on dirt,” Kahne said. “So to come out and win on a road course … it feels great. I can’t believe it.”
Stewart has mentored Kahne at times in his career.
“Kasey just never made a mistake at the end,” said the current Sprint Cup Series points leader. “He did an awesome job those last 20 laps and just never slipped a wheel, never missed a corner and never made a mistake.”
Last updated: 10:37 am Thursday, December 13, 2012