Top 10 NASCAR Driver of the Year 2011:
10 April 1980
Enumclaw, Washington USA
Red Bull Racing Team
2011 was always going to be a bit of an odd year for Kasey Kahne, seeing that it was a stop-gap season between his time at Richard Petty Motorsports the previous year and his forthcoming promotion into the Hendrick Motorsports #5 car in 2012 alongside the likes of multiple Cup champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and the series' biggest star Dale Earnhardt Jr. It's certainly exalted company that the 31-year-old will be moving in next season.
But in the meantime it was important that Kahne shouldn't lose momentum in 2011, despite the "treading water" nature of his year being spent on loan to the Red Bull Racing team while Mark Martin served out the last year of his own current Hendrick contract in Kahne's future ride. RBR had seemed like a solid, safe way for Kahne to continue to gather more Cup experience; it might not be a front runner or title contender, but RBR seemed a well-funded professional organisation capable of giving Kahne a competitive car every weekend.
Kahne and his temporary team struggled in the early part of the season with too many wrecks, mechanical failures and lost handling days leading to inconsistency. That ongoing lack of visible progress seemed to be the final straw for the team's owners, drinks giant Red Bull, and the news came mid-season that they were pulling the plug altogether on their NASCAR venture. While Kahne's own future was unaffected and still secure (as was that of his loyal crew chief Kenny Francis, who is moving to Hendrick with Kahne in 2012), RBR still can't have been a pleasant atmosphere to be around as frantic efforts went on to save the team and everyone else's jobs.
Given the situation, therefore, Kahne deserves huge credit for sticking with the team and delivering not only two pole positions (at Darlington and Atlanta) and 14 top ten finishes, but to then sign off with a victory for Red Bull at their penultimate race in NASCAR at Phoenix by outracing the two title contenders Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards to the chequered flag. It was only RBR's second win since they entered the series in 2007 (Brian Vickers had previously found victory lane in Michigan in 2009.) Victory in such circumstances really underscores the scale of Kahne's achievement.
It was far too late to save the team, of course - RBR closed for good on December 8, with all remaining team members laid off. But Kahne himself will go on to bigger and better things at Hendrick and now with his reputation considerably enhanced, as his strong ranking in the Crash.net
readers' poll confirms.
Top 10 NASCAR Driver of the Year 2011 results so far:
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.