In the buildup to today's Daytona 500, Kasey Kahne limped around the speedway, still recovering from his fourth knee surgery in 15 months. • As he prepared to climb into his No. 5 Chevrolet for the Great American Race, he said his body is healing fine, two weeks after the procedure. His legs are as sturdy and stable as they've ever been. • And after years of uncertainty ended with a new ride at powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne can say the same thing about his career. • "Oh, man, stability," he said. "It's a great word. It's a good word to hear." • And it's one that has been missing from his vocabulary for most of his NASCAR career.
Kahne was a promising 23-year-old when he inherited Bill Elliott's No. 9 Dodge at Evernham Motorsports in 2004. He finished second in two of his first three races that season and was the Cup rookie of the year with 13 top-fives.
From 2004-08, he won nine races — including a series-best six in 2006 — recorded 35 top-fives and qualified for the Chase for the Championship for the first time.
Then instability began to creep in.
Evernham merged with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009. That shop merged with Yates Racing the next year, and Kahne's car switched from a Dodge to a Ford.
Kahne jumped to Red Bull Team Racing and its Toyota machines in late 2010 before that team folded in December. He's taking over Mark Martin's Hendrick Chevrolet this year.
The chaos showed on the track, where he has one victory, one Chase appearance and only 22 top-fives in the past three seasons.
"When people are uncertain about their future, uncertain about different things, it's an attitude changer," the 31-year-old Washington state native said. "There's nothing you can do about it. You've got to be in a strong, steady environment if you really want to perform."
Kahne began to see a stable future in April 2010, when owner Rick Hendrick snatched NASCAR's biggest upcoming free agent, even though Kahne couldn't race for his team for two more years. At the time, Hendrick called Kahne a "big piece" of the team's future and praised the racer's "incredible talent" and dedication.
"Kasey's a great driver," Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "He's going to come in here and do great things and have probably the best year of his career."
With a future at Hendrick in his sights, Kahne began to improve at the end of last season. He missed the Chase, but only Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart fared better in the last 10 races. Kahne finished outside the top 15 only once, strung together four consecutive top-six runs and snapped an 81-race winless streak with a victory at Phoenix.
Kahne said he has even bigger expectations in 2012 now that he has joined a Hendrick stable with 199 series wins, 10 Cup championships and drivers Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
"When you go to Hendrick Motorsports, you know you have the car," Kahne said. "You know you have the engine. You know you have all the opportunity that you need. We've just got to make sure we stay on top of it."
Kahne said the biggest adjustment to his new team hasn't been the equipment or the financial support. It has been the attitudes of his co-workers.
He didn't realize it then, but previous garages were clouded with negativity. It's hard for a shop to stay focused and upbeat when rumors are swirling about the team merging or folding.
His new team was resilient enough to rebound from a last week's wreck in practice to qualify 20th in his backup car.
"You walk around there … you're just happy," Kahne said. "The atmosphere is good. You just feel good about where you're at and what you're doing."
Kahne gets plenty from Hendrick, but he gives a lot, too. Crew chief Kenny Francis has been with Kahne since 2006 and is regarded as one of the sharpest mechanical minds in the series.
Before the season, Hendrick said his goal is to have all four of his drivers among the Chase's 12 participants. He expects one of them to win the championship.
"We're a part of that now," Kahne said. "We need to step up and show him that we want to make it happen."
Kahne knows this season's success rides on him. His knees are healthy. His garage is upbeat. His equipment is the best it's ever been. He has no excuses.
And at last, Kasey Kahne has stability.
"I'm not really searching anymore," Kahne said. "I've found it."
Times staff writer Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]