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NASCAR

Hendrick’s Kahne enjoying red-hot start to season

  • Driver Kasey Kahne sits in his car while adjustments are made before practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, April 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

    Driver Kasey Kahne sits in his car while adjustments are made before practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, April 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • Driver Kasey Kahne sits in his car while adjustments are made before practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, April 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

    Driver Kasey Kahne sits in his car while adjustments are made before practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, April 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • Driver Kasey Kahne sits in his car while adjustments are made before practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, April 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
  • Driver Kasey Kahne sits in his car while adjustments are made before practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, April 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

When your teammates include the best driver of this generation, the best driver of the last generation and the most popular driver in the country, the spotlight can be hard to come by.

But on NASCAR’s most powerful team, Kasey Kahne has spent the young Sprint Cup season making noise. Hendrick Motorsports’s least-heralded driver has been one of the hottest drivers around, racking up top-10s, competing for wins and making it clear he belongs in the center of championship discussions.

Entering last night’s race in Richmond, Kahne was enjoying a dream start to the season. He was second in the Sprint Cup standings, had five top-10 finishes in eight races and had whittled four of them down to top-fives. He’s already notched a win, which came at Bristol in March, his first victory in 19 races at

the claustrophobic half-mile track.

He’s generating buzz on a team for which it can be hard to stand out. Hendrick is the Sprint Cup’s only four-car team, and its lineup reads like NASCAR royalty. There’s Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion, Jeff Gordon, a four-time champ, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., arguably the sport’s biggest name and who draws the loudest cheers at every track the series visits.

When Kahne joined in 2012, he became the weak link by default, a once-rising talent whose career had meandered and generated only two Chase appearances in eight full seasons. Instead, Kahne proved worthy of the Hendrick ride, winning twice to make the Chase as a wild card, then racking up five top-fives to finish fourth in the standings.

This year, Kahne has used that momentum to propel both himself and his team forward. His hot start has him behind only Johnson in points, giving Hendrick a 1-2 punch atop the standings, and he’s managed it despite a disastrous start that would cripple a lot of drivers in the points chase. Kahne qualified well out of the gate but stumbled in his first two races, finishing 36th despite starting second at Daytona and coming in 19th in Phoenix despite a sixth-place starting spot.

Stuck in a hole quickly, Kahne climbed out even faster. He caught fire, going on a four-race tear that saw him finish second in Las Vegas, win at Bristol, then follow it up with a ninth-place effort at California and fourth-place finish at Martinsville. He nearly added a second victory two races later, finishing second by 0.15 seconds to Matt Kenseth, who was later penalized heavily for an engine part that failed post-race inspection.

There haven’t been many more consistent drivers over that period, and now Kahne just has to keep it up. If he does, he won’t have to seek the spotlight. Even on star-studded Hendrick, the driver of the No. 5 car will have all the attention he could ask for.

On the mend

Last night’s Toyota Owners 400 was the fourth race in a row Denny Hamlin has missed. The Joe Gibbs standout hopes it’ll be the last.

Hamlin, who’s been out since March 24 with a compression fracture in his spine, is eyeing a return to the track May 5 at Talladega, and a return to full-time driving a week later at Darlington. That would put Hamlin right at the six weeks his recovery was expected to take, but the Virginia native was hoping all along to beat the odds and return even sooner at Richmond.

“It kills me to not be in the car for my team and sponsors,” he wrote on Twitter, “but after long discussions with the doctors we have decided to wait on my return back to racing.”

Even while breaking the bad news, Hamlin had a resolute note to end on.

“I’ll be back in no time,” he wrote.

Three up

∎ Brad Keselowski: Penalties, schmenalties. With his team under fire following stiff punishment from NASCAR, Keselowski responded by climbing from a 33rd-place starting position to a sixth-place finish at Kansas. He’s got seven top-10s so far, the most in Sprint Cup.

∎ Martin Truex Jr.: The 2013 season didn’t get off to a fun start for Truex, but he’s starting to find the form that put him in the Chase last year. He finished second at Texas and fourth at Kansas before coming into Richmond.

∎ Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: The heralded rookie had his best starting position (third) and finish (11th) of the year at Kansas last week. He even led 26 laps. They’re baby steps, but the two-time defending Nationwide Series champ has to start somewhere.

Three down

∎ Kyle Busch: How do you have a series-best five top-five finishes and two wins, yet only rank seventh in the standings? By falling apart when it’s not your day. Last week at Kansas fits that description for Busch, who started fifth before crashing and finishing an ugly 38th.

∎ Joey Logano: A tough spring (he was penalized along with teammate Keselowski) got worse thanks to a crash and season-worst 39th-place finish at Kansas. He began climbing back from 20th in the standings with a third-place finish last night at Richmond, but he’ll need to keep it up. The penalties (if they stand) won’t help.

∎ Tony Stewart: Eleventh, 31st, 22nd, 17th, 21st, 21st. Those were Stewart’s last six finishes entering Richmond, all but one of them being worse than where he started the race. The 2011 champ just doesn’t have the speed.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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