The first few months of the 2012 NASCAR season have been a nightmare for Kasey Kahne. A series of unlucky breaks has sent Kahne and his No. 5 team spiraling downward in the Sprint Cup points, with little solace to be had from two poles and fast cars.
Perhaps Kahne only needs one confidence booster to turn his season around. That may very well have come on Sunday, when he returned to the Camping World Truck Series and won the Good Sam 200 at Rockingham Speedway.
It couldn't have come at a better time. Entering the year with a new team in Hendrick Motorsports, and an old friend atop the pit box in Kenny Francis, expectations were high for Kahne, as many believed that he would make a long-awaited return to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But Kahne has faltered under the weight of the expectations so far. He scraped the wall at Phoenix and started an early incident at Bristol by trying to make an aggressive move into the first turn and failing to fully clear Regan Smith. Meanwhile, he failed to lead a lap at Las Vegas from the pole, and when his engine blew at Martinsville, it dropped the No. 5 team to 32nd in owners' points, dangerously close to losing its guaranteed starting spot every weekend.
So when the opportunity to race a truck at Rockingham came up, it was a no-brainer for Kahne to take the ride. Not only would it be a chance to run on one of the sport's most esteemed tracks in the era before major national television contacts, it would give him a chance to boost his confidence in a series where he typically shines.
In four career starts in the Truck Series, Kahne had only failed to win once, at Pocono in 2010. But even there, he had finished second. The other three races—late-season starts in 2004 at Darlington and Homestead, and another Darlington run for Kyle Busch last year—ended in authoritative victories, with Kahne leading a total of 244 of a possible 431 laps (meaning he was out front 56 percent of the time).
And so it was on Sunday. Kahne's Turner Motorsports Chevrolet was slated to start fifth, but dropped to 34th at the start because Brad Sweet had qualified the truck for him while he ran the Sprint Cup race at Texas. Undeterred, he made his way through the field, climbing into the top 15 within the first 20 laps. Aided by a speeding penalty to polesitter and teammate Nelson Piquet Jr., who had the dominant truck for most of the race, he took the lead from Matt Crafton on lap 155 and never looked back. He beat another teammate, James Buescher, to the line by 1.478 seconds.
The question remains whether Kahne can turn the Truck win into Sprint Cup momentum, something that hasn't consistently happened in the past. He followed up the Darlington win in 2004 with a fifth-place run, but crashed out of the subsequent Homestead race. In the second Pocono race of 2010, he only managed a 19th-place finish, and only scored three top-10s in the final 15 races of the season. At Darlington in 2011, he won the pole and finished fourth, but didn't score another top-10 until Daytona in July.
It's going to be an uphill climb for Kahne to post a respectable finish in this year's Sprint Cup standings. But maybe regaining the winning feeling at Rockingham will give him some momentum as the series starts to hit its stride. Who knows—a couple of wins and a top-20 ranking come Richmond may even be enough to sneak him into the Chase.