A few weeks after the final race of the 2011 NASCAR season, Kasey Kahne strolled through the front door of the main building at Hendrick Motorsports, using the same entrance as all the fans who visit the sprawling, near legendary race shop in Concord, N.C. It was Kahne's first trip inside the team headquarters as a Hendrick driver, and an employee quickly approached. Smiling at the still-boyish Kahne, she handed him a key card. This credit-card-sized piece of white plastic would unlock every door in the complex, opening a new racing world to Kahne—one in which he suddenly has become a legitimate contender to end the seven-year streak of Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson winning the Sprint Cup championship.
"The moment I got that key card was the moment I knew my career had really changed," Kahne says. "Now I'm in the best situation I've ever been in to win a championship. There are no more excuses. I really feel like this is the time for myself and my team to consistently run well, make the Chase and be right there at the end of the season."
At the dawn of the 2012 NASCAR campaign, which begins on Sunday with the 54th running of the Daytona 500, Kahne (age 31) isn't the only driver who appears to have the talent, the equipment and the crew to speed past Stewart and Johnson. Carl Edwards (32) and Kyle Busch (26) are also poised not only to knock off Cup racing's Big Two this season but to dominate the sport in the coming years the way Stewart and Johnson have for much of the last decade. Consider: Stewart is 40, Johnson is 36. In racing years, they are on the backstretch of their career primes. The oldest driver to win the Cup was Bobby Allison at age 45 in 1983, and since then no driver older than 43-year-old Dale Earnhardt in '94 has taken the championship.
"A changing of the guard in NASCAR is coming," says Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion and analyst for Fox, which will televise the Great American Race. "Historically when the establishment gets firmly established in NASCAR, they'll look in their rearview mirror and see a bunch of younger guys coming fast. We're at that transition point right now. Drivers are in their prime from about age 28 to 35. But once they cross 35, those holes on the track that they used to stick their noses into aren't quite so inviting anymore. They slow down and become less aggressive, which opens the door for the younger, more daring guys. This is the year things will change in the Cup series."
"A FUTURE CHAMPION"
Jimmie Johnson stood 20 feet away from Kenny Francis, the longtime Kahne crew chief who followed the driver to Hendrick, and pondered how the duo will perform in 2012. "The expectations for Kasey and Kenny are high, and they should be," Johnson said in January while in the Hendrick shop. "Kasey has a great feel for the car, he's got bravery, and he's methodical in how he chips away at the guys in front of him. There's no doubt that he's a future champion. With the stability that he and Kenny now have at Hendrick, they are going to be dangerous for a long time."
For the past two years Kahne, once touted as the next big thing, has been a racing vagabond. In 2010, while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Kahne endured a period of financial tumult within the team and struggled on the track, finishing 20th in points. But the season wasn't a complete loss for Kahne, because that April he signed a four-year contract with Hendrick to take over the number 5 Chevy from then 51-year-old Mark Martin (who is once again retiring from full-time Cup racing), though Kahne wouldn't join the team until 2012. So last year, while waiting to slide into his dream ride at the sport's most dominating team, he drove for Red Bull Racing. Even though Kahne was a lame-duck driver on a lame-duck team—Red Bull closed its doors after the season—he scored more points in the Chase than every driver other than Stewart and Edwards (who finished first and second, respectively, in the final standings). On Nov. 13, Kahne also took the checkered flag at Phoenix International Raceway, a track where he may very well notch his 13th career win when the Cup circuit stops in for the second race of the season, on March 4.
"Kasey and I have been on a roller coaster for the past few years, and it's been very challenging," the 42-year-old Francis says. "We've had to start from scratch with our cars every one of those seasons. We've been on our own, but we believe in each other. Kasey is smart, levelheaded and gives me great feedback. If I can make the car just a little better, he'll show it. Now this is our best opportunity. Whatever potential we have will now come out."
Yet Kahne won't begin the season 100% healthy. On Feb. 10 he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee to repair a torn meniscus. Kahne has proved before that he can drive with an achy knee—in 2011 he finished third at Richmond International Raceway 12 days after similar surgery—and he's not scheduled to miss any practice time before Sunday's race.
"The transition to Hendrick has gone as smoothly as possible, and we're already learning so much," Kahne says. "It's like we've finally found our home. We're being given everything we need to win. I feel capable. Now we just need to do it."