Gordon, Kahne eager to carry Hendrick banner in Coca-Cola 600
(NASCAR) - Hendrick Motorsports' most recent stretch of success has been a two-week joy ride, highlighted by a historic 200th victory, an All-Star waltz and rejuvenation for NASCAR's most popular driver.
Now Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, the organization's oldest and newest drivers respectively, are eager to become bigger contributors to the company cause.
Gordon and Kahne aim to rekindle their winning ways Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in NASCAR's longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 (FOX, 6 p.m. ET). Both drivers have multiple wins in the 600, but haven't had much to crow about in 2012 while teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have excelled.
For Gordon, the 1994, '97 and '98 winner of the 600, the drop-off has been most dramatic. The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has just one top-five effort in 11 races this season and enters Charlotte with four straight finishes outside the top 20. A combination of crashes, cut tires and plain bad luck have dropped Gordon to 24th in the standings; the worst finish of his career came in his rookie season of 1993, when he wound up 14th in Sprint Cup points.
Despite all the misfortune, Gordon has managed to maintain a positive attitude even in the face of mounting frustration.
"What are you going to do other than just keep your head up and work hard and go to the next race and try to change it," Gordon said. "We've got too good of a team and too good of race cars to try to get down on the way things have been going. It's tough. It's challenging because every one of those races where you get out of the car and you see the dejection on the team's face. You know what you're going through and they feel it from you as well.
". . . So, the timing gets tougher and tougher all the time and the more races that go by that we don't get the results, the harder and harder that mountain is to climb. But we're just relying on our team and keeping the communication open and stay positive with all the guys and just say 'hey, this is our week. this is our week.' And you can only do that for so long, but we're still doing it. So, hopefully we'll see the results."
Kahne, who prevailed in the Coca-Cola 600 in 2006 and '08, entered the season as a potential dark horse for title contention based on his strong finish to 2011 for the lame-duck Red Bull Racing team. But Kahne stumbled out of the gate for Hendrick -- though he had two Coors Light pole positions in the first six races, he had zero top-10 finishes to show for it. Since then, Kahne has found a modest amount of consistency and enters NASCAR's annual endurance test with five consecutive top-10s, helping him rocket from 31st to 16th in the Sprint Cup standings.
"It never really got to me too bad because the situation I was in, I don't feel like we've performed to our capability yet at all," said Kahne, who will make his 300th Sprint Cup start Sunday. "I feel like we are running pretty well since the start of the season, we really haven't made those big gains yet. I think as a company it's obvious that we have the speed and it's all right there. We just need to put it together."
COULTER PRIMED FOR NATIONWIDE DEBUT
Joey Coulter, last year's top rookie in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, will give a different circuit a try this weekend. Now only if team owner Richard Childress is able to keep his roster of drivers in order with radio communications.
Coulter, 21, will make his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut in Saturday's History 300 (ABC, 2:30 p.m. ET) at Charlotte Motor Speedway, joining a roster of budding young talent climbing the racing ladder for Richard Childress Racing.
Coulter explained to the media Thursday how reassuring it was to have Childress, winner of multiple NASCAR titles as a car owner, on the other side of the headset as he cuts his teeth in stock-car racing. That's when Austin Dillon, Childress' grandson and Nationwide rookie of the year candidate, chimed in.
"Joey forgot to tell you how many times he's been called Austin, or Ty (Dillon) or Elliott (Sadler)," Austin Dillon said. "My grandfather came on and called me Elliott last week. It's really nice to have him on the radio and helping you out; he's got so much experience, but there is actually a funny point where he comes over (the radio) and calls you someone else's name. It kind of lightens the situation."
Whatever he's called, Coulter has begun to make a name for himself in the truck series, where he currently ranks 10th five races into his second full season. His mindset for his maiden voyage in Nationwide is to keep learning from RCR's depth of talented teammates.
"I'm definitely going to lean on them this weekend," Coulter said. "I've got a bunch of great teammates and they've been super-fast pretty much everywhere. I think it's a good shoulder to lean on."
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. continues to lead the Nationwide Series standings, having posted three wins this season. Save for his crash-related 19th-place result in the season opener at Daytona, Stenhouse has finished no worse than sixth in the other nine races in 2012.
Updated May 25, 2012