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Coca-Cola 600: Kasey Kahne has makeup to handle 600 miles

Friday, May. 24, 2013

The Coca-Cola 600 is a long day that bleeds into a long night.

Drivers can either fight that or embrace it. Count defending champion Kasey Kahne as a guy who loves the longest race of the Sprint Cup season.

“I’ve always really liked the longer races,’’ said Kahne. “It gives you more time to work on your car, more time to kind of fine tune and get it as perfect as you can for those last 50 to 100 miles.’’

The evidence is apparent: Kahne has won the 600 three times, tying him with several others for the second most victories in the event’s history, behind Darrell Waltrip’s five. Kahne will start sixth, based on Thursday’s qualifying, in Sunday’s race.

Long races are as much as anything about attrition. Those who can avoid chain-reaction wrecks or not wear out their cars do well anywhere, but particularly so in these endurance events. It’s telling that Kahne has completed 96.8 percent of his laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It’s no surprise, then, that when the same guy keeps hitting him – coincidence or not – Kahne starts taking it personally. Kyle Busch has wrecked Kahne three times this season, such a string of accidents that Busch recently joked he’s waiting for Kahne to take him out.

After the Talladega accident Kahne said Busch “screwed up’’ and made a flippant remark about waiting for another in a series of apology calls.

For the most part, though, Kahne is pretty even-tempered. That suits the patience you need to not take crazy chances over a 600-mile race.

“(This) has always been one of my favorite races, just because there’s a lot of communication going on where you need a good crew chief and a good engineer,’’ Kahne said. “People are going to listen and work with you – understand what you’re staying. I have that with Kenny (Francis, the crew chief) and Keith (Rodden, the engineer).’’

Rodden has worked with Kahne one season, but Francis and Kahne have been together since 2005. Only Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have a longer span in a Sprint Cup driver-crew chief pairing.

They’ve worked for different race teams in that span, but the constant has been their relationship. They’ve qualified for the Chase three times, including last season, when they won two races.

It’s about knowledge, but it’s also about complementary personalities.

“I’d say we’re both pretty mellow,” Kahne said. “Because we’re both kind of mild-mannered we get along really well ... no reason to scream and yell at each other.’’

Though they grew up in opposite ends of the country – Kahne is from Washington state, Francis from Florida – they had similar backgrounds. Both love go-kart racing (Kahne still participates occasionally). Francis started out aspiring to be a driver, so he knows the sensibilities behind the wheel, too.

Kahne just loves driving fast, no matter what the vehicle. He’s still heavily involved in the World of Outlaws, one of the circuits where he drew experience early on, and he’s scheduled to drive in Saturday’s Nationwide race.

The presumption is drivers join the Nationwide field to get extra laps on CMS before Sunday’s race. It’s a fallacy, Kahne says, because the difference in Nationwide and Sprint Cup cars is so great.

After bouncing around several operations, Kahne and Francis landed a ride with Hendrick Motorsports last season. Kahne loves it there, and not just because he knows he’s getting great cars.

“It starts with how Mr. H (Rick Hendrick) treats people from the top – every single person,’’ Kahne said. “Everybody I work with treats everybody with respect. That starts with Mr. H, and you don’t have that everywhere you go.’’