Kasey Kahne, the seven-race winner who split with his Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) last week in a mutual separation, has landed at the Red Bull Toyota team for the final five races on the 2010 calendar before starting his one-year contract with the team next season.
“I was leaving starting next year and it made sense for RPM to start working on their things for next year and for myself to get with the Red Bull guys at this point,” said Kahne, who agreed to race for Red Bull earlier this year before heading to the Hendrick team in 2012.
“I’ve been doing really the same thing for six-and-a-half years, so to make a change like this — it’s new people, new car, new manufacturer, new sponsor — I mean, everything is different.”
Kahne’s first weekend in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota began on a positive note with a 14th place finish at the tight, 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway after qualifying 33rd for Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500.
His remarkable opening salvo in the No. 83 is even more impressive because the team simply planned to use the final five races of 2010 to get the driver accustomed to his new surroundings.
The pressure will be on to deliver after Red Bull general manager Jay Frye outlined what he wants to see from Kahne in 2011: “We are going to make every effort to win races, get into the Chase, and compete for a championship. We have very high expectations.”
The open seat at the team is due to Brain Vickers staying on the sidelines for most of the season after being diagnosed with blood clots in May and then undergoing surgery to fix a hole in his heart in July. Since Vickers stepped out of the car, the Red Bull team has used fill-in drivers for the No. 83.
“I want to come out and win next year." -Kasey Kahne
Casey Mears ran four races but didn’t stay with the team. DTM star Mattias Ekström tried his hand at NASCAR in two appearances, one on the road course at Sonoma and the other on the Richmond oval. A third driver, Boris Said, raced on the road course race at Watkins Glen. While the trio pitched in, Reed Sorenson did the bulk of the work, making 13 starts with a best finish of eighth in the July stop at Daytona.
Although Sorenson delivered four top-20 finishes in his past seven starts in the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota, getting Kahne into the car early was too tempting to pass up.
“Obviously this is something we didn’t anticipate happening, but it did and we couldn’t be more happy about it,” said Frye. “Our circumstances as they are, we have a car that’s available. We were just waiting and this is a great thing for us.”
As for 2011, rumors have begun to swirl around No. 82 Red Bull Toyota driver Scott Speed, whose future with the team may depend on Vickers’ recovery.
“We are still monitoring Brian’s health and his situation, and so far everything looks really good,” Frye said. “At this point, we are going to end up having two cars and possibly three drivers, so at that point decisions will have to be made.”
Another decision looming is the future of Jimmy Elledge, who may be a third wheel when it comes to crew chiefs next year. Kahne’s crew chief Kenny Francis will stay at RPM for the remainder of the season but he will join his driver at Red Bull in 2011. Kahne will work with Elledge for the rest of this year but the team may find him a new role next season.
Having a familiar face atop the timing stand should help Kahne hit the ground running at Daytona when the 2011 season gets underway. Although NASCAR’s 36-race season seems long by most standards, Kahne knows he doesn’t have a lot of time to waste.
“It’s one year, but it’s a short year and I am happy trying to get prepared a little early,” he said.
“I want to come out and win next year and the only way to do it is to be prepared and get off to a great start. Hopefully this will help a little bit with that and we will be able to be a little bit quicker when we start at Daytona.”