NASCAR: Four slumping drivers get boost
By Jenna Fryer
CONCORD ó Aside from the $1 million payout to the winner, the All-Star race supposedly doesn’t count for anything.
Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, AJ Allmendinger and Sam Hornish all might disagree.
The four drivers got a much-needed confidence boost in the so-called meaningless race, using strong runs Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway to show there is hope in turning their slumping seasons around.
“I’m already looking forward to next weekend’s (Coca-Cola) 600,” Kahne said after winning the $1 million prize. “It gets me excited to come back to the track next week. I know it’s good for myself and I definitely know it’s good for the team and for the guys that work on the car.
“They need to win once in a while to be like, ‘Man, I’m putting in so much time, so many hours, and it pays off.’ I think it’s really big for everybody.”
For Kahne, who slipped his way into the race via the fan vote and then gambled to win the main event and the $1 million prize, the victory boosted his spirits during a trying time for the one-time championship contender.
He’s mired in a 52-race winless streak, dating back to Lowe’s in October 2006. That was the last of his six wins that season, when he made the Chase and finished a career-best eighth in the final points standings.
But 2007 was a struggle, as Kahne and his Gillett-Evernham Motorsports team notched just one top-five finish all season. His only wins came in the Nationwide Series, and his August win at Bristol was just one of two trips to Victory Lane.
Winless through the first 11 races of this year, he was ineligible for the All-Star race and needed to finish first or second in the Sprint Showdown to earn a transfer spot into the show. His car was horrible in Friday’s practice sessions, and a dejected Kahne seemed already defeated before he finished fifth in the preliminary race.
Saved by an ardent fan base that gave him the third and final transfer spot, Kahne’s spirits were certainly lifted after he gave Dodge its first win in the All-Star race and earned an automatic invite to the event for the next 10 years.
“I just get frustrated. I get down,” Kahne said. “This is momentum. These are things that can turn your season around and get you going in the right direction.”
Kenseth is looking for that same spark. The 2003 series champion is having a horrible year by his standards, failing to match any of the consistency that earned him berths in every running of the Chase since its 2004 inception.
He’s 20th in the points, has only one top-five finish this year and appeared openly frustrated a week ago in Darlington, S.C. Then he pulled out a sixth-place finish in the Cup race at Darlington and followed it with his third-place run in the All-Star race.
He knows the finish will be lost on everyone outside his Roush Fenway Racing team, but they are the ones that needed it, anyway.
“It was a good morale booster for the team,” Kenseth said. “We haven’t really been running very good this year. When we have run good, we’ve had a lot of problems.
“We were kind of back in form a little bit. We were pretty competitive at times. If it runs solid like that for 600 miles, I think we will have a car that can be a contender, something I haven’t felt like in a while.”
Oh, can Allmendinger and Hornish relate to that. Former open-wheel stars, their adjustments to NASCAR have been far from smooth.
Allmendinger had a horrible rookie year, and was pulled from his Red Bull Racing car for five races this season so the team could figure out if the struggles were car or driver related.
And Hornish, a three-time IndyCar Series champion and one of the most successful American open-wheelers in history, has never struggled the way he has since moving to NASCAR. He failed to make races last year while testing the stock-car scene, then made the switch despite his struggles and it’s not gotten any easier: He’s still looking for his first top 10 of the year.
So when Allmendinger crossed the finish line in first place in the Sprint Showdown, with Hornish hot on his bumper, the two drivers accustomed to success finally felt it in a stock car. Both advanced into the All-Star race, where they never ran up front, but that didn’t matter.
Just getting into the main event was enough for both.
“I feel like I won the Daytona 500,” an elated Allmendinger said before finishing 17th in the All-Star race. “Nobody understands how much this means to me after what we went through as a team. It may be just an All-Star Showdown, but this means the world to me.”
Hornish perhaps could have won the Showdown, but settled into second because he didn’t want to force the issue and risk wrecking a car set to advance into the All-Star race. He finished seventh in the big race, and to some, it seemed as if he’d just won another Indianapolis 500 title.
“We keep trying to advance all the time and we think we’re heading in the right direction,” Hornish said. “We just need to get the monkey off our back and get a little bit more luck. I’m just really, really blessed that I got to come down here and be part of the All-Star race.
“It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, that’s for sure.”