The 2008 season for the No. 9 team lacked one major thing consistency. There were checkered flags and DNFs however, in the end the bad days would out number the good. When Francis hit the setup, the No. 9 could be counted on for a strong finish. Yet, if the day started out ghastly it became a forgone conclusion that a top 25 finish was out of reach.
The 2008 season begged the question what is the problem? Driver? Doubtful, 2006 demonstrated that the Cup series and Kahne are a good fit. True the fallowing seasons weren’t completely highlights in his career. Yet, he didn’t go winless last year something even the great Jeff Gordon can’t claim.
Next most likely suspect—Crew Chief? Francis has made the Chase three consecutive years (2004-2006) with different drivers including Kahne, therefore not making him the smoking gun either.
The answer is synergy (or lack there of).
History shows that this Crew Chief and Driver are able to work together. The new variable is horsepower. Yes, the No.9 team was a Dodge team in 2006 when they were winning so why is the engine now in question? The answer is the changes in horsepower of other engine.
Look at the success of Toyotas in 2008 horsepower defiantly factored into that equation. Many times last season Kahne would get hung up in lap traffic, the easy diagnosis of this situation is lack of driver confidence. The more likely truth was horsepower, although the result of the lack of power probably did nothing to boost driver confidence.
To synergize the No. 9 team needs three things from Francis and crew, on point (1) setup (2) fuel millage strategy and (3) pit-stops. These three things need to work together to overcome the horsepower issue. The No. 9 team needs to stay upfront, thus the need for the right setup for qualifying and consistent handling throughout the race.
Secondly, the fuel millage strategy and pit-stops have to keep track position in mind. For other teams a drop of four to five spots due to pitting is recoverable were for the No. 9 team this could have a drastic negative effect on their race.
Without question Kahne is a key component to this synergy as well. Kahne must be aggressive yet smart in qualifying. A good qualifying position is key for this team’s race strategy. Being smart in qualifying can’t be understated for the No. 9 having to go to a backup car would be much more of a gamble for this team, then say the No.48 team.
Again with keeping the horsepower issue in mine, Kahne most be aggressive (1) off pit row and (2) on restarts. As every spot counts for this team, it is key for Kahne maintain track position.
Going into this season both Crew Chief and Driver set a goal of constancy. Kahne himself set the personal goal of on bad days still finishing in the top 25. Currently, the No. 9 team is 16th in the standings. The No. 9 team today has an average finish of 17.4. They only fell short of their goal twice, Richmond and Talladega.
The numbers also speak volumes as to how critical being upfront is for the No. 9 team. Taking into account only those races upon which the No. 9 team had low starting position <18, they had an average finish of 22.5. Now juxtapose that to high start positions which were they had an average finish of 14, the importance of track position for this team is striking.
Granted just looking at start and finish data doesn’t tell the whole story of a race, yet for this teams there seems to be a correlation between start position and race success.
However, there is another interesting number to address as wells and that is laps lead. Until Darlington this was basically a non-stat for the No. 9. Nevertheless could Kahne’s performance on the “Lady in Black” mark the beginning of true synergy for the No.9 team?
The egg-shaped Darlington with her mismatched ends makes this track a particular challenge for Crew Chefs. The No. 9 team started Darlington in 7th; they stayed out in front indicating Francis and crew were on point. By Lap 71 Kahne was in the lead, clearly driver was in the game too. As with pass races this year it was apparent that they had addressed the horsepower/lap traffic issue of last season, yet it hasn’t been enough, no synergy.
The definition of synergy is 1+1=3. I would argue until Lap 84 at Darlington, No.9 team math was 1+1=2. What changed?
The No. 9 crew and Kahne became the No. 9 team. The No. 9 crew could bring a good car to the track, and Kahne could drive that car, as seen by good qualify times and reasonable finishes. Yet, they weren’t leading or wining. The change could be seen when in the lead the No. 9 crew made a fast four tire stop and Kahne won the race off pit row and the No. 9 team was on fire.
The clear indication that the No. 9 team had become more then just the sum of their parts came on Lap 205. Kahne lost a tire after contact with David Stremme. The nose was knocked in forcing a green flag pit stop, ultimately putting the No. 9 team two laps down.
If this was 2008 the lack of horsepower plus team frustration would have equal disaster 1+1=2. This wasn’t the case at Darlington. Multiple cautions gave the No. 9 crew time to address the handing problems. Kahne’s decisive driving choices put them back to only one Lap down. The desire to finish strong was clear in this team 1+1=3, leading to a 23rd place finish on a “bad day.”
The big question is will it hold. Darlington hinted at the possibility that the rest of the season could look more like 2006 then 2008. Kahne will defend his All Start title this weekend, and although it isn’t for point this maybe the perfect place to make their new found synergy stick. If it does the Chase could still be in reach for this team.