INDIANAPOLIS — Kasey Kahne proved he’s still capable of winning races.
Now he must convince team owner Rick Hendrick he still belongs on one of NASCAR’s strongest teams.
One day after 19-year-old William Byron won his third Xfinity Series races in less than a month, Kahne overcame dangerous heat, painful muscle cramps and a grueling, crash-marred, six-hour marathon Cup race to earn his first win in almost three years. It might take an even bigger effort to keep his job.
“Our plans are not set for the No. 5 car,” Hendrick said after Sunday’s Brickyard 400. “There’s nothing concrete or done and that hasn’t changed. We’ll see how things shake out at the end of the year.”
For weeks, there’s been speculation about Kahne’s future at Hendrick Motorsports.
With only three top-10 finishes in the first 19 races and his primary sponsor, Great Clips, already announcing it would not be back next season, many thought the 37-year-old Kahne was on his way out.
Kahne responded with maybe the gutsiest performance of his career.
He avoided all the debris and chaos around him. He and Brad Keselowski escaped a three-wide race through the third turn with Jimmie Johnson’s car smoking.
Kahne then held off Keselowski on the final restart, beat him to the overtime line and appeared dazed and confused as he slumped to the ground after climbing out of his Chevrolet with the win in hand. After kissing the bricks, one of the top trained athletes in NASCAR went to the infield medical center for intravenous fluids.
It took everything he and his team had to reach victory lane.
“All I want to do is win. All I want to do is perform,” he said. “My team works really hard as well, but we haven’t had the performance. We haven’t ran up front. We haven’t led a lot of laps. I feel like this is a huge win for us. Being the Brickyard it means even more to me — one of the toughest and biggest races you can win in NASCAR.”
The victory gives Kahne a ticket to the playoffs and more chances to impress the owner.
Byron looks like another rising star in Hendrick’s garage. With three wins in five weeks, he’s already showing he might ready to make the jump to the Cup series.
Hendrick isn’t quite convinced.
“He’s definitely going to be in the Xfinity car (next year),” Hendrick said Sunday morning when asked about Byron taking over the No. 5 in 2018. “We’ll come to that bridge when we cross it.”
Clearly, wins help Kahne make his case to stay. And big wins, like the one at Indianapolis, are hard to ignore. Hendrick now owns a record 10 Brickyard wins — five with Jeff Gordon, four with Johnson and one with Kahne.
But as Ryan Newman found out four years ago, a Brickyard win doesn’t guarantee anything.
Just weeks before the 2013 race at Indy, team owner Tony Stewart told Newman he wasn’t coming back in 2014.
Winning the Brickyard win didn’t change Stewart’s mind, though Newman wound up with Richard Childress Racing.
Kahne’s situation is different. He doesn’t know his fate and has 16 races to prove he still can get the job done.
Will it be enough?
“Puts him in the Chase, in the playoffs. We’re excited about that,” Hendrick said. “I hope this turns the corner. The team’s had a lot of bad luck.”
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