(This scene has been all too familiar to Kasey Kahne in the first two weeks of the season - Getty Images)
Two races do not make a season by any means. However there is a group of drivers who come into Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway already in need of a good finish.
The opening weeks in Daytona and Phoenix have not gone very well for some high profile names most expected to be factors in 2012. While there is certainly time to get things back on track, you wouldn’t blame these drivers for perhaps grabbing that steering wheel a little tighter Sunday in Vegas:
This was supposed to be the breakout year for Kahne who finally made the move to Hendrick Motorsports after his limbo season in 2011 at Red Bull. But so far Kahne has had nothing but trouble and a lot of damaged racecars to show for his effort. A crash-filled Speedweeks rolled into another accident for Kahne early in last Sunday’s Phoenix race knocking him from contention in a race he was considered a favorite to win. The usually calm Kahne was frustrated after his early exit at PIR.
"I've been so excited about it, and I was excited the whole offseason and couldn't wait for the season to get here," Kahne said. "I show up at Phoenix, we're the best car all day Friday, top two cars all day yesterday, would have been the same today. I just need to calm the (blank) down."
Crew chief Kenny Francis will help Kahne do just that and there’s no reason to write this team off just yet. A top ten here and a top five there should be all the No. 5 Hendrick team needs in the coming weeks to shake the disappointment of the early going and begin to fulfill the high preseason expectations.
Penske Racing’s newest driver has also endured a crash-filled opening two races of the season and finds himself 25<sup>th</sup> in the standings. That’s not what the former Richard Petty Motorsports driver expected to happen when he got the call to drive for his hero Roger Penske.
"Honestly, it was a bit of a frustrating weekend especially on the heels of Daytona,” Allmendinger said after eventually finishing in position 18 Sunday in Phoenix but not before getting swept up in a multi-car crash earlier in the race. “I've always run well here, so I came in with my goal being a top five or top ten at least. We just couldn't get the car dialed in from the start.”
What may compound Allmendinger’s issues going forward is Penske’s announcement to switch from Dodge to Ford in 2013. The company is now faced with the task of ramping up for next year only two races into the current campaign while trying to focus on Allmendinger and teammate Brad Keselowski this season. Allmendinger is working on a one year contract as well so the stress level may be on the rise in the No. 22 camp unless things turnaround quickly.
The new season has been a repeat of the dismal campaign of a year ago that team owner Chip Ganassi referred to as pathetic. McMurray has dropped all the way to position 35 in the point standings and suffered through a pair of disappointing outings in Daytona and Phoenix. He survived a lap 134 tangle with Allmendinger and Paul Menard only to have his engine expire in the late stages of the race.
“I don't know the motor blew up again. I don't know what happened there. It started missing and started smoking and just quit running, tough day," McMurray said.
Those engine issues have to be disconcerting to the Ganassi team, which worked so hard in the off season to find more speed and reliability under the hood. If that becomes a trend again for McMurray and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, Ganassi may use a much more negative word to describe 2012.
The consensus is Johnson will recover from the early season challenge of a 25 point penalty for pre-Daytona 500 inspection infractions and a forty-second place finish in “The Great American Race.” But the reality is the five-time champion comes to Las Vegas 71 points out of the lead. He finished fourth Sunday in Phoenix to prove there’s really nothing wrong with the 48 team on a whole and remains positive about what lies ahead despite the obstacles.
“It is going to make it exciting,” said crew chief Chad Knaus, who awaits to appeal the penalty and six-race suspension handed down by NASCAR. “That is one thing that we typically try to do here with the No. 48 team. We somehow or another we seem to get through adversity pretty well.
“I’m not saying we like a challenge like this, but I’m pretty sure we will rise to the occasion.”
Johnson has a couple of things on his side to rebound – time and the wild card berths available to make the Chase.
“The end result is winning races,” Johnson said. “The worst-case scenario would be fighting for a wild card spot and that boils down to winning races. There’s a lot of racing between now and September in Richmond, the cutoff for the Chase. Right now, we’re focused on doing the best job we can and the most points we possibly can.”
He’s made comebacks before but Johnson has never been in position to have to make one this early in a season.
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