Kahne struggling through tough season

Kasey Kahne is one of the biggest stars in NASCAR.

His commercials are played over and over on TV and he can no longer walk anywhere at the racetrack without an entourage to clear the way and keep him from being trapped by hordes of autograph seekers.

The only problem is, Kahne is having a terrible season on the racetrack.

Following Tuesday's rain-delay race at Michigan, where he was never a factor and wound up 31st, Kahne was 27th in the season points with one pole, no top-fives and only two top-10s in 23 races.

"Same story, different weekend," Kahne said Tuesday. "We struggle when rubber gets on the track and in traffic. It's no fun."

The 27-year-old driver, in his fourth season in Nextel Cup, is definitely used to better.

He was rookie of the year in 2004 after posting 13 top-fives and finishing 13th in the points.

The next year was a down year for Kahne, but he still managed to earn the first of his seven career wins and post five other top-fives.

Last season, the youngster from Enumclaw, Wash., blossomed into a real star with six wins, six poles, 12 top-fives and 19 top-10s on the way to making the Chase for the championship for the first time and finishing eighth in the points.

That certainly raised expectations for the Gillette Evernham Motorsports driver. But the season has turned into a real bust and made it less fun for Kahne to come to the racetrack.

"I would say the excitement is not quite as much," he acknowledged Monday during a rain delay at Michigan International Speedway. "Because you go into the weekend understanding where you're at and you understand that it's really tough to run like we did last week (at Watkins Glen, where he finished 26th) and expect to run this week like we did last year (when he finished first and fourth at MIS).

"The competition is so difficult, it's not like you just gain all that in one week. If you (could), there would be blowouts in the series, and that's not happening."

The major problem has been failing to get a handle on the Dodges that he and the rest of the GEM team have driven this season. They've even tried going back to some of the 2006 configurations, but the results have not turned things around.

Teammate Elliott Sadler has done a little better and is 23rd in the points, while Scott Riggs is 37th in the third GEM entry.

"We've made a ton of changes," Kahne said. "We never know how far, how close, what's the same, what's different. There are so many different pieces to mess with on a car."

At this point, with no shot at the 12-man Chase, all Kahne can do is hope to improve and work toward next season.

"That's the only thing I am thinking about &

being prepared next year and being strong when the season starts," he said.

Noting that the new Car of Tomorrow will be run for the full schedule next year after being run just 16 times this season, Kahne added, "It's going to be good that it's back to one car that we can all work on and make better.

"At the same time, we haven't been that great in the COT, either. We definitely have some work to do there. It's been a tough season, trying to figure out what we need to do to make these cars work."

But, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. has opted to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. to race at Hendrick Motorsports and Kyle Busch will jump from Hendrick to Joe Gibbs Racing, Kahne doesn't plan to make a change anytime soon, despite the struggles.

"I like driving for Ray," Kahne said of team co-owner Ray Evernham, which whom he has a contract through 2010. "I like how bad he wants it.

"He told me from the start that if I stick with him he'll give me the equipment and the people to win a championship. I believe him. I think he will. I'm going to stick with him for a while and try to get that done."

Evernham isn't close to giving up on Kahne either.

"He didn't win all those races last year and then suddenly forget how to drive," Evernham said. "It's a struggle, but we feel like we're headed in the right direction. If it's just a matter of hard work, Kasey will be OK and this team will be OK."

Kahne is disappointed by the way things have gone in 2007, but he's still excited when race time comes.

"Every week I've gone into it with high expectations and hoping that we can make gains and make strides," he said. "I think that we have, to a certain point."

Now he is looking forward to running the COT again Saturday night at Bristol

"Bristol has been a lot better with the COT than some of the other places," said Kahne, who finished 19th at the Tennessee track in the spring. "So I'm looking forward to that and, hopefully, to our first good finish of the year."

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