The Roush Fenway Racing driver discusses his "brand" and future
A newbie's five picks to click for the Great American Race
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief plans to engineer successful season
'The Odd Couple' star got fired for not making Herbie the Love Bug smile
Hendrick Motorsports driver talks offseason plans, 2015 goals RELATED: Subscribe to NASCAR Illustrated Kasey Kahne had an up-and-down 2014. The 34-year-old driver won for a third consecutive year at Hendrick Motorsports , notching the victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the penultimate race of NASCAR's regular season. That late win vaulted the No. 5 team into the Chase and ensured that all four of Hendrick's teams were in it. But Kahne and longtime crew chief Kenny Francis didn't consistently flash the speed that their fans have been accustomed to seeing. The rumor mill began churning with talk of Keith Rodden possibly leaving Chip Ganassi Racing and returning to HMS next year to lead Kahne's team. That move was confirmed shortly after Homestead, as was a new three-year-deal for Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports . NASCAR ILLUSTRATED : What do you have planned for the offseason, anything you're particularly looking forward to? KASEY KAHNE: I'm excited mainly just to have a little break. I need a break away from racing. Looking forward to going home for a few days back to Washington in Enumclaw, hitting a Seahawks game and then heading to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a week to ski, snowmobile and shop. I'm looking forward to that. NI: Your Atlanta win was the high point of the season. How would you describe the relief of getting into the Chase? KAHNE: It was definitely a highlight as a team and stepping up and working together. Getting a win that night was really nice for us, nice to make the Chase and get in. But I think the win meant more than anything just to show that we're capable if we do things right. When we do things right, we're still capable and we have a lot to look forward to in the future. NI: What are your thoughts on the new Chase format now that you've been through it? KAHNE: It's been really interesting and I personally like it because both winning and consistent teams will advance. In each round, both have advanced, so to me it's kind of like the points system but it's also like a playoff. So I like that. And it's also put more pressure on the teams and drivers every single race, which has created more drama. The fighting, the running into each other, I think it's really made it more intense. It's actually been pretty damn exciting. NI: You and Russell Wilson raised $220,000 in two days during "The Drive" this summer. What does the future look like for the event? KAHNE: Russell's excited and I'm excited about our first tournament together and the first time we worked together on charity. We're gonna do it again next year and try to make it an annual deal. The golf tournament was great and the course and the people involved. We expect to grow it and want to work and make sure it's bigger and better each year. RELATED: Kahne, Super Bowl MVP team up for 'The Drive' NI: What specific areas of your team's performance need to be better in 2015? KAHNE: Really the first thing I look at is speed in practice, qualifying, race. We don't have those fast laps like we've always had in the past. We have to look at that; I have to look at that, we have to look at that as a team. Our pit stops have to be better. You can't lose spots every time off pit road and expect to do well in this series. It's way too competitive. I think both of those things and just the communication and working together, normal things that you have to have as a team. I just think we all need to get a little better at that. I think it will all take care of itself once we get the speed back, once we know we’re putting up fast laps whenever we're on the track. SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Learn more about the sister of Ryan Blaney and the daughter of Dave Blaney RELATED: Subscribe to NASCAR Illustrated Editor's note: Photo by Jim Fluharty Hometown: "I was born in Warren, Ohio, but moved to High Point, North Carolina, when I was 7. High Point is a small town that is fun and friendly. I've recently moved in with my parents in Concord, North Carolina — they love having me home, I'm sure. Charlotte is one of my favorite cities, so I'm happy to be so close." My boutique: "In March of 2014, my mom and I opened EmLeigh’s and Mama B’s in Concord. It's been a dream come true. I wake up every day excited to go to work. I am working in my dream closet. What 24-year-old girl (Emma turned 24 on Tuesday, Jan. 20) wouldn't love that?" Fashion: "I have always been the girl who isn't afraid to wear just about anything. Fashion and style are just ways of being yourself. You need to show you through anything you do, and one of the easiest ways to speak without saying anything is through what you wear." Favorite midnight snack: "I can tear up some edamame and some Cosmic Brownies. I have the appetite of a 5-year-old, so you'll always see me with Nerds Rope, Pop-Tarts, honeybuns or chocolate milk." Favorite app: "Instagram or Vine. I can easily waste two hours looking through pictures or watching hilarious videos." Music that moves me: "Physically, hip-hop or rap. I do an awful lot of unattractive dancing, but it's just so fun for me. If good music is playing, I'm dancing. Mentally, John Legend. In my head, he is singing all those cute love songs to me, and it turns my bad days into good ones." Favorite movies: "My all-time favorite is 'The Sandlot.' I watched it growing up and it never gets old. But I also love just about any movie starring Jim Carrey." Favorite websites: "I am married to a little thing called Pinterest. I know it is just so typical 'girl,' but whoever thought of Pinterest deserves Edible Arrangements every week because they are making the female population very happy." Habit I'd like to kick: "Putting on workout clothes but never actually working out. I find myself putting on workout clothes and walking to the Waffle House all too often." Biggest influence in my life: "My family. I have a dad who has worked hard his entire life, has never given up on what he loves and would do anything for our family. I have a mom who has kept us all in line. She has a lot on her plate but makes sure all of us are always taken care of. I have a younger brother who is doing big-boy things and living out his dream. And I have a younger sister who is always supportive of everyone and can make anyone smile at any time." SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Get to know the up-and-coming NASCAR driver MORE: Jones to run Truck Series for GMS Racing " Inks deal with RCR In 2014, Brandon Jones , 17, notched a top-five in the Truck Series (Dover), scored his first win in the K&N Pro Series East (Iowa), and won twice in just three ARCA starts. Next year, Jones is planning to make a few starts for Richard Childress Racing in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and will also run 16 races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with GMS Racing. Patience, grasshopper "I do a lot of fly fishing and a lot of wood work and stuff like that -- things that take patience, honestly. That kind of keeps you thinking about things and kind of keeps you calmed down. Even though you're going 190 mph in some of those races, you still have to be calm and be thinking about what you're doing." Gale force " Cale Gale and his dad were training this kid in Atlanta at Lanier Speedway and Gresham, and all those places. Cale actually told us, 'Come on down and see if you like it, first of all, before you start investing all your money and getting into it.' So, I did that for a little bit and actually just fell in love with it. I've always loved cars." Confidence booster "We definitely kept building momentum the whole year in the Truck Series, and the competition in that Series is so tough. When you keep going up in levels, it's gonna keep getting tougher and tougher. So, it was pretty cool to come away with a top-five. Top-fives and top-10s really boost your confidence a lot." A series of series "This year we ran ARCA, the Truck Series, K&N. Staying in all those different series really keeps you thinking about different things inside the car. It is a little (tough). The (different) tires and the motors were the biggest thing about going back and forth." Schoolboy "I did online school one year and that was hard, for sure. I had to go back to public school. It was just weird. You don't have all the people and the atmosphere there, and not a lot of people trying to help you. So, that was really difficult. This is our senior year, finally. Maybe we can get out and try to focus on (racing) a couple of years." SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Drivers provide insight into racing for NASCAR's smaller teams How small is your team compared to the elite teams? Michael McDowell , Sprint Cup driver @Mc_Driver "There are a total of 12 guys in our shop -- going against teams that have anywhere between 150-300 people. The biggest difference is just the sheer ability to maximize all the details. At the same time, the sport does allow us to be fairly competitive. We have an alliance with Team Penske that allows us to stay closer to the game and stay relevant. You've got to start somewhere. Who knows, five years from now, we might be one of those teams with 50-100 people." Joe Nemechek , Sprint Cup driver @FrontRowJoe87 "There is no comparison. At one point, I drove for Felix Sabates and we had a three-car team. I drove for Andy Petree, where we had two cars. And I drove for Rick Hendrick, who had four cars. This team [for the Atlanta race], I just met these guys on Monday. I want to say they have six or eight guys. It's virtually impossible to be competitive, but we can put on a good show for smaller sponsorship dollars. We have to work, dig and claw for everything. I'm not saying the big teams don't do that, but it's unbelievable hours and a lot of work." Derrike Cope , XFINITY Series driver @DCopeTeam70 "We are pretty small. We have five full-time people, including myself. We all try to do a multitude of things. I do shock absorbers, we rebuild our own engines and we pretty much outsource all the fabrication work. It's a tough go." Mike Harmon , XFINITY Series driver @hrmn8ter "Besides myself, I've got two full-time employees. So I guess that would make us 10-times smaller." Big teams come to the track with totally fresh cars. Do you ever come to the track with a car that is just plain worn out? McDowell: "Over the years, I definitely have -- mostly with chassis and bodies. In years past, I've gotten into cars that I'm not sure I should have gotten into without getting a tetanus shot. Of late, it's not been like that." Nemechek: "You can always do things better. I've been doing this a long time, and you learn what's important. A lot of time, you can outsmart some of these guys." Cope: "We do that about every weekend, to be quite honest. We have to run the old engine and we're just basically trying to run on a limited amount of tires. We run a lot of used tires in the race. We buy used parts and pieces that have been discarded by other teams and try to assemble something that will be better than what we had before." Harmon: "As a racer, you always want to have the best equipment. In Nationwide , I've never been able to have that." For top teams, 12 seconds is a good time for a pit stop. How long does it take your crew? McDowell: "With our Team Penske alliance, we use some of their development guys to pit the car. That's big for us because they are very good." Nemechek: "We just have a bunch of misfits. We're on a 25-second pit stop cycle, but that's fine. As long as they get all the lug nuts on tight, we're good." Cope: "We're probably doing pit stops in the 15-16 second range. We rent a few pit crew members from other teams." Harmon: "We're looking at trying not to lose a lap when we pit. At places like Daytona or Talladega, where we can run in the draft, I hire a Sprint Cup crew. Anywhere else, we're here to make the show, run and keep the team alive." SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Junior's comeback season brought out the best of old and new The announcement of NASCAR's new points system dominated the preseason in 2014, and headlocks and brawls and go-for-broke racing dominated the end. But in between, the best story was the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr . The sport's biggest star turned in the most important season of his career. After a solid but winless 2013, his slide from the top of NASCAR's mountain had ended, and he needed to race his way back to the top. He did and then some. He won the wildest Daytona 500 anybody has ever seen, he won at Pocono twice, and he drove away to the checkered flag at Martinsville while everybody behind him beat-and-banged on each other. His four wins equaled his total from the previous nine seasons combined. He was nearly as entertaining off the track, as he joined Twitter and turned 140 characters into an art form. But more than the wins and the tweeting, Earnhardt's season thrilled Junior Nation because it signaled the return of the confident Dale Earnhardt Jr . In 2014, he lived and breathed the exuberance that first made him so popular and then disappeared when his career went into the toilet. Few public figures, in sports or anywhere else, are as transparent as Dale Jr. He opens his mouth and the truth comes out. If his mouth doesn't betray his true feelings, his body language does. He couldn't fake it if he tried. So even more important than the results is the manner in which he achieved them -- with a strutting, head-up, eyes forward, let's-do-this bravado, as opposed to the Dale Jr. who sulked around the garage from 2007-2011, looking at his feet, sure his car would stink before he even got in it. He lost his swagger and believed he would never find it again. And so he wallowed, year after frustrating year. Everyone had brilliant ideas about how to fix him except him. For Earnhardt, the difference between wanting to and doing is the difference between doubt and confidence, and for years he didn't believe in himself or in his cars. He looked at his race car and saw a plodding tank, and he looked in the mirror and saw a driver who couldn't drive it fast if it were a rocket ship. He fumbled through seasons like a man looking for clothes in a dark closet. He had no idea what he was pulling out, and he was stuck wearing it regardless. He tumbled to 25th in 2009 and 21st in 2010 and even those miserable stats only hint at how far he had fallen in his own head, from title contender to also-ran. He wondered if his career as a competitive driver was over. And then an amazing thing happened. Team owner Rick Hendrick gave him Steve Letarte as a crew chief before the 2011 season. Letarte arrived on Earnhardt Jr.'s porch an hour or so after getting the job. He had just finished a winless season as Jeff Gordon 's crew chief and wasn't overflowing with confidence either. Each needed to look the other in the eye and size him up. Are you going to take me back to where I belong? As Letarte entered Dale Jr.'s house, he immediately put his new driver at ease and started putting him back together again. Before they ever went to the track together, Letarte insisted on rules nobody had ever been able to enforce with Junior. Letarte told him to show up before practice to talk about the car and to stay afterward until Letarte didn't need him anymore. It sounded like drudgery to Junior. And the results were slow to come, at first. He hit everything but the scoring pylon that year in Speedweeks. Then he was slow after that. Before a race in Las Vegas, his confidence still shot, Junior forced himself to stay and listen to and talk with Letarte and the engineers. The next day, the car was as fast as any he had driven in years. From then through 2013, hints of the old Earnhardt came back. His average finish improved dramatically; it was a career best 10.9 in 2012, a far cry from his career worst in 2009 (23.2). But he visited Victory Lane just once in that stretch, in 2012. In 2013, only a blown engine in the first Chase race kept him out of title contention. He couldn't wait to start the 2014 season and immediately showed why. He drove a brilliant Daytona 500 , passing high and low and early and late and with speed and cunning. He spent most of the rest of the season at or near the top of the leaderboard. For the first time since 2004, he had a legit title chance. Those hopes evaporated with back-to-back finishes of 39th at Kansas and 20th at Charlotte in the 30th and 31st races of the season. He wound up eighth in points. But to measure him only by where he finished in points is to miss the point entirely. The way to measure the new (and getting older) Dale Jr. is against the old (and forever younger) Dale Jr. and the one in the middle. He no longer resembles the one in the middle. The new and old have a lot in common, and the key difference is this one has confidence based on wisdom and experience rather than the ignorance of youth. The highlight of Earnhardt's season came after his win at Martinsville. A win there yields an iconic grandfather clock trophy, which Earnhardt had coveted for as long as he could remember. For his Hendrick Motorsports team, it came within days of the 10-year anniversary of a Hendrick Motorsports team plane crash that killed 10 people, including Hendrick's brother, son and two nieces. Earnhardt climbed from his car in Victory Lane and unleashed an utterly captivating stream-of-consciousness interview soaked through with joy. He was out of breath when he started talking. Not from driving, he said, from celebrating. He bounced from the bucket-list delight of winning a clock to heartfelt empathy of the magnitude of winning at that place on that day. "I lost my daddy a long time ago and I know how hard that is," Junior said. "I can't imagine losing the magnitude of people Rick lost. My heart goes out to him during this weekend. And I love that his cars are good here and give him a victory. And this honors them." He talked afterward about putting the clock right by the front door of his house so everybody who came over would see it. When it chimes, it heralds a great win that capped an unforgettable comeback season. SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Bootie Barker breaks down how side drafting helps at Daytona and beyond