Monday, August 13, 2012

Drivers to Watch: Hamlin versus Kahne

The last few days we've posted the Drivers to Watch Series, and this is the final segment. The Chase will start in four short weeks, and competitors are driving hard for wins – at this point, it’s still anyone’s game. The drivers we've been writing about are contenders and counting anyone out is premature. We saw Tony Stewart win five out of ten races last fall, so the chance to see something just as impressive is realistic.

For the final segment, Amanda and I are talking about two drivers that are sitting on the edge, a bad finish or two and either can fall behind in points, or with a win, can move forward.

Denny Hamlin – 10th in points, 2 wins, 2 poles, nine top fives, 11 top 10s, 4 DNFs 
Kasey Kahne – 11th in points, 1st wild card spot, 2 wins, 2 poles, six top fives, 11 top 10s
, 4 DNFs

Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne before the Lenox 301
at NHMSJuly 15th, 2012
Photo Credit: Genevieve
To compare Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne may or may not be fair. Not that it really matters but the fun comparisons are: Kahne is seven months older, he has been racing in the NASCAR Cup Series one year longer than Hamlin. They're athletic, Kahne runs, participating in triathlons and other events such as the Warrior Dash and Hamlin keeps a busy schedule playing sports such as basketball and golf.

Now for the racing part - Kahne owns four Sprint cars with his Kasey Kahne Racing team and races in World Of Outlaws but Hamlin does not. Both drivers do race part time in the Nationwide Series as well as the Camping World Truck Series; neither guy has a championship in NNS or CWTS. For the Cup series, Hamlin has five more career wins than Kahne (Hamlin's19 to Kahne’s 14). The two drivers do have the talent to win more than five races a season, and right now both are tied at two wins in 2012. 
Denny Hamlin in Darlington, SC
May 2012
Photo Credit: Genevieve

In all fairness, the soon-to-be-dad has been with Joe Gibbs,  FedEx and the No. 11 car since the start of his Cup career. In 2008, the team switched manufacturers, changing from Chevrolet to Toyota. Aside from that, Hamlin's only major change happened in January of 2012 when he parted ways with long-time crew chief Mike Ford. The Virginia native started the new season with 2011 Championship crew chief, Darian Grubb. This hasn't been a bad season for the No. 11 team at all, but some of the summer races haven't been very lucky for him. His car caught on fire twice, and he wrecked at Pocono.

Kahne hasn't had comparable stability since his Cup career began in 2004. With the exception of being partners with his crew chief Kenny Francis for six seasons there's been a variety of sponsors, spotters, team changes, and he's driven all four car models (Dodge, Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet).   Now, he's finally found the stability he's waited for. Once he joined Hendrick Motorsports in January, he started working with Championship drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, he's admitted to having changed his driving style - and having learned a lot of new things. The turnaround he's made since the Texas race in April has been phenomenal. Moving from 31st in points to now 11th, he's secured the first 'wild card' spot in the Chase, and if he wins one more time, he'll be a contender for the championship. It'll be his second Chase to date.

On the other hand, Hamlin has been in the Chase every year since the start of his career and was a first-place contender in 2010 - but lost to Jimmie Johnson by a slim margin, so  the chances of his repeating that are good.

Where these guys end up in points is to be determined, of course. Which driver will earn his third victory of the season first? A third win would benefit Hamlin who finished second to Kahne in Charlotte and New Hampshire. After the accident in Pocono, Hamlin fell three spots in the points. At Watkins Glen, his car caught on fire and he couldn't finish the race and that led to falling two more points behind. I believe that Hamlin has the talent to redeem himself but with his racing luck I fear he may not climb through the top ten by the final race in November. 

I favor Kahne turning his season around a lot faster than Hamlin. Admit it, the pilot of the No. 5 Chevrolet has had a few surprising finishes and is sure to have a few more. 

Amanda says:    

The similarities between Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne are most obvious when you start with the basics. Both are still considered the “young guns” of NASCAR at 31 and 32 respectively. Looking at just their Cup series participation, Kahne has an extra year on Hamlin, nine versus eight.

Focusing on this season, both drivers have had their fair share of ups and downs.

Denny Hamlin (career span of eight years with 19 wins, 75 top 5s and 122 top 10s in 245 career starts) has had his share of difficulties this season. From crashes to parts malfunctions, four DNFs are dragging the team down in the points. Otherwise, the new pairing of Hamlin and Darian Grubb has been a great duo to watch each week. I suspect that they will get to victory lane again this season; after all two of Hamlin’s best tracks are on the schedule – Martinsville and Richmond. Will Hamlin make the Chase – yes! He has proven time and time again, that he is a Chase-worthy driver.

Kasey Kahne before qualifying in NNS
at NHMS. July 14, 2012
Photo Credit: Genevieve
Kasey Kahne (with a nine-year Cup career and 14 career wins with 63 top fives and 113 top 10s in 310 starts) has had a rollercoaster year. His debut race with Hendrick Motorsports ended in a crash, and Kahne’s season looked bleak early on. It has been a period of adjustments for him, as Gen mentioned all the changes he has undergone this season.

Thankfully for the Kahne fans, the season has picked up and the goose egg is missing from the win column. Things appear to be going smoothly from here on out. Will Kahne get back to victory lane and maintain his wild card position in the Chase? He is facing a hard charge from his teammate Jeff Gordon, but he has no reason to not make it. Hendrick Motorsports is a winning team.

If I have to choose Hamlin versus Kahne, I'd rather flip a coin because they are evenly matched in my book. 


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