This season has been Kyle Larson’s breakout season after being handed the keys to a top-tier ride. After years of grinding in slightly above average equipment that had good years and bad years, his stats are starting to reflect what we always knew he was capable of.
Watching a young guy hop into the Hendrick motorsports #5 seemed nostalgic to me and reminded me of another driver who went to HMS after being shackled in mediocre equipment for so long. Kasey Kahne spent years with Evernham Motorsports – which then became Gillett Evernham Motorsports and ultimately Richard Petty Motorsports – in average to decent equipment.
Kasey Kahne built his career from the ground up finding opportunities in the dirt world like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart before him. Stewart was a driver he was compared to as he became a phenom before joining NASCAR. Once he got to stock cars, the potential was raw but there with multiple great runs, but inconsistent stretches.
Before Cup, Larson also had the same career, becoming a phenom in dirt and an inconsistent but talented stock car racer. It took each time to develop, but once they got to Cup they showed flashes of future champions. Each of them racing for middle-of-the-pack equipment but outperforming it in a talented, but inconsistent fashion. Both are also famous for their high-wheeling and aggressive driving style.
Kasey Kahne Stats Before Joining Hendrick:
Top Fives: 57
Top Tens: 102
Kyle Larson’s Stats Before joining Hendrick:
Top Fives: 56
Top Tens: 143
There is a debate to be had whether Evernham or Richard Petty Motorsports was on the same competitive level as Chip Ganassi Racing during Kahne and Larson’s respective tenures. I believe Evernham Motorsports took a huge decline after the 2006 season and none of Kahne’s teammates ever finished above 20th in the points standings. I think Evernham and Richard Petty Motorsports were a below-average team that Kahne made look competitive and Ganassi was an average to an above-average team that Larson made look championship caliber.
When Kasey Kahne left Petty to join HMS he was expected to pretty much do what Kyle Larson is doing now, harness all this raw potential we’ve seen for years. Unfortunately, Kahne and Larson’s stints at Hendrick are so far taking different paths. One is living up to expectations, and the other could never truly get their feet off the ground.
Larson has already outperformed any season that Kahne had in Hendrick equipment. The #5 car is finally getting the championship-caliber season that it has been missing for so many years.
Kasey Kahne has always been a driver that never lived up to their potential. Once he got to HMS his career hardly took a spike, and he only had one season where he had championship aspirations in 2012. For whatever reason, Kahne never found a way to live up to his equipment; in the middle of his prime, he’s doing no better than he was back at Evernham Motorsports. Meanwhile, Larson has cracked it right out of the gate and looking like a generational talent.
Reasons could be spread across multiple corners of the race shop as to why for whatever reason Kahne was unable to click with HMS. Things can stretch from crew chief, team chemistry, or the driver’s confidence. Potentially there could’ve been some underlying health issues that affected him inside the car as well with the reveal that he suffered from severe dehydration in 2018 that pushed him into early retirement. Perhaps his body just wasn’t suited to handle the physical demands of a NASCAR race despite him being in great shape.
It was a sad hill to watch Kasey go down, but there is no doubt that he could do what Larson is doing, it just didn’t work out. He’s now running his World of Outlaws team and competing part-time and just like Larson, continuing to succeed in the dirt world.
Despite Kahne’s career never living up to the hype, he still walked away with 18 wins, an All-Star race, two Coca-Cola 600’s, and a Brickyard 400. He won’t be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he has put together a solid career to look back on. If what we saw out of his career was the worst-case scenario, we can look to Larson for the best case.