The racer from Enumclaw brings an 83-race winless streak into this weekend’s Daytona 500. With is contract set to expire in 2018, he needs a few wins to fuel his career.
There was a time when Kasey Kahne was the future of NASCAR — a prodigy on the fast track literally and figuratively.
The Enumclaw native’s six Monster Energy Cup wins in 2006 were more than any other driver, including that year’s champion, Jimmie Johnson.
If you were to turn back the clock to that season, you’d see a 25-year-old Kahne on the verge of stardom in the country’s most popular motorsports series. But that’s only if you turn back the clock — because when it comes to career in the present day … the clock is ticking.
Like Dan Marino reaching his lone Super Bowl in his second NFL season, Kahne’s acme appears to have come early. Now 36, he has yet to have another year with more than two victories, and is winless since August of 2014.
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For a driver of his profile and ability, that’s a Sahara-esque drought. The good news? He has a chance to snap that skid in the most glorious way this weekend.
“We had a racetrack at home when I was a kid, and I was always imagining it was the last lap at Daytona,” Kahne said. “It’s been a dream of mine all my life.”
Sunday will mark Kahne’s 14th Daytona 500 (where he’ll start 28th), which is widely considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR. And though Kasey has had three top-10 finishes in the race, he has never crossed the line first on the final lap.
Perhaps it’s overambitious to want to end an 83-race winless streak with the most prestigious checkered flag in the sport. It’s kind of like snapping out of a hitting slump with a walkoff grand slam.
But in addition to Kahne feeling confident that his Hendrick Motorsports racing team has made significant strides this offseason, there is another reason to think Kasey will hit the track running this year: He has to.
Kahne’s contract with Hendrick runs out in 2018, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by the media. Questioned about that toward the end of last season, Kahne told foxsports.com “If I haven’t performed by 2018, I need to leave. It’s pretty simple. If I haven’t performed by then, it’s time to go do something different.”
I followed up on Wednesday by asking what “something different” might look like.
“I don’t know,” Kahne said. “At this point, all I really want to do is race.”
Not that he doesn’t have other interests. Kahne’s high-intensity fitness routine has shredded his body along with stereotypes about NASCAR drivers’ physical condition.
“The better shape I’m in, the more I put my body through, the more it helps me on the track,” he said.
He’s also a huge Seahawks fan who has been attending games since they played at the Kingdome.
Who’s your favorite player on the team?
“Probably Jermaine Kearse. He’s a really nice, really cool guy,” Kahne said. “And as far as wide receivers go, his hands are unbelievable.” (Full disclosure, 12s: Kahne’s favorite player in the NFL is Tom Brady.)
But most of Kahne’s off-the-track time is spent with his 1-year-old son, Tanner.
Kasey became a first-time father two Octobers ago and has been loving every minute of it. His Instagram feed is flooded with pictures of his son, sometimes in dad’s lap, other times behind the wheel of a toy car.
Kahne said that he doesn’t care what his son does when he grows up, as long as he’s happy. “But,” added Kasey,” if he’s around racing this much, I don’t see how he’s not going to race.”
From the Pettys to the Earnhardts to the Waltrips to the Wallaces, NASCAR has been replete with fathers and sons who each saw success. Perhaps the Kahnes will join that list at some point.
Right now, Kahne isn’t thinking that far ahead. The past couple years haven’t gone anywhere close to how he hoped they would on the track, and the next couple years will have to be much more fruitful if he wants to keep that ride.
Sunday, Kahne will have the chance to spark that career comeback in his sport’s biggest race. It’s his chance to show that, despite his early success, he hasn’t peaked quite yet.