Darren Sabedra The Mercury News
Jun 25, 2016
SONOMA, Calif. — The thrill seeker in Kasey Kahne obviously isn’t content with sitting behind a steering wheel and speeding around NASCAR tracks across the country against drivers of similar fortitude.
No, Kahne, who hails from Enumclaw, Wash., has taken the thrills a step further. The guy has come face-to-face with sharks. Real sharks.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” he said of the experience last year in the Bahamas, “because I didn’t think they would put me down there if it was a bad situation. But thinking back, I would probably be more nervous now if I went again.”
Sunday, when the Sprint Cup Series makes its annual pilgrimage to Sonoma Raceway, Kahne’s car will be painted in a shark theme as he aims to return to victory lane at the Toyota/Save Mart 350 for the first time since 2009.
The new paint job is to help kick off Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. The station filmed Kahne in shark-infested waters last year as the driver exhibited another form of courage.
“They were big — seven, eight feet long,” said Kahne, who has been a part of Shark Week the past couple of years. “There were like 15 of them. We were 40 feet underwater. It was crazy. You could touch them. But you just didn’t want to move your hands too fast or they would think that your hand would be food.”
It’s a good thing Kahne, 36, kept the movement to moderate levels, given the demands of his day job.
The man who drives the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet will need to be in top form Sunday if he is to take a bite out of the competition — i.e. end a two-year, 61-race winless drought.
The Sonoma race — one of two road-course stops in the series — has become so competitive that 10 drivers have taken the checkered flag in the past 11 years. Only last year’s winner, Kyle Busch, has won the race twice in that span.
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Denny Hamlin, this year’s Daytona 500 winner, said one reason for the competitive balance is the Chase for the Cup. Sixteen drivers qualify for the 10-race playoff at the end of the season to determine the season champion. A win at any of the “regular-season” races, including Sunday’s, automatically qualifies a driver for the Chase.
“We’re not crowning the champion over 36 races anymore; we’re doing it over 10,” said Hamlin, who has not won at Sonoma. “How many race winners have there been this year? Ten. There are 10 of us with nothing to lose, so we’re going out there, we’re getting aggressive and sometimes we’re getting in wrecks or causing wrecks. The rest of the 30, this is their opportunity to punch their ticket into the Chase. They’re getting more aggressive.”
Kahne is 17th in the standings, one off the spot needed to make the Chase. He has started from the pole twice at Sonoma in nine starts and has two top-five finishes.
“When I first went to Sonoma early on, it was kind of my most difficult track to understand, just from my background,” Kahne said. “I didn’t have a lot of experience with road racing. But once I got it figured out a few years in, it’s been one of my favorite race tracks.
“There is a lot of throttle control. With all the different corners, hills and just the way that track is, it’s pretty fun. It’s a good time.”
It’s even better when you cross the finish line first, as Kahne did seven years ago. The victory was his first taste of success on a road course as he held off Tony Stewart to win. Now, Kahne is someone to watch.
When the race ends Sunday, he will return to his home state to take part in a charity golf tournament he co-hosts with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson called the DRIVE. The event raises funds for Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Strong Against Cancer initiative.
If all goes well on the track this weekend, maybe Kahne will be basking in the glow of victory.
“I know we’re very close,” he said. “Whether or not it happens in the next couple of weeks or not, I don’t know. But I think we’re close.”