A breakthrough rookie season raised the bar for Kasey Kahne entering 2005. His second Nextel Cup season was supposed to be filled with wins and a berth in the top 10.
Instead, it was a struggle from the outset. Unable to get his Evernham Motorsports Dodge Charger dialed in, he crashed his share of cars early and not even a win at Richmond in May could turn his season around.
Kahne's one victory was obviously the year's highlight, but the rest of his performance came up short. He posted just five top-fives, compared to 13 a year earlier, and only eight top-10s after 14 a year before.
Part of the drop-off was caused by the struggle all Dodge teams encountered adapting from the Intrepid to the Charger. And part of it was a breakdown in chemistry with crew chief Tommy Baldwin.
The end result was finishing 23rd in points, 10 spots lower than his finish as a rookie.
"I showed my skill at Richmond and that was it. It was really a pathetic year," Kahne says. "Some of the things I did, some of the crashes I was in, I didn't need to be in. I forced the issue. I knew my car was on the edge of crashing and I went past that edge and crashed. That was pretty bad driving really.
"I felt like I made a lot of mistakes with bad race cars. I could have just handled those cars and drove to the finish. If I had finished 16th, 17th, 18th somewhere in there instead of crashing and finishing 40th or 42nd, that's where we lost a lot of points. If we had just finished races we probably would have finished five or six or seven spots better in the standings. I feel like I grew up a lot during the year and will calm down a little bit. You really can't make up for one of these cars like you can in Sprint cars, where you can get more aggressive and maybe make up for it. You just can't do that in a stock car."
Another year's maturity should make a difference; at least that's what Kahne is hoping. In addition, Baldwin has left the team for a job with Elliott Sadler at Robert Yates Racing and Kenny Francis is now in charge of Kahne's team.
The 25-year-old driver also thinks the changes to his team will pay off, as he'll largely be working with the team that carried teammate Jeremy Mayfield to a berth in the Chase for the Nextel Cup the past two years.
"Ray [Evernham] has done a lot of things during the offseason to kind of mix things up, and I think that's what we needed," he said. "Our team was a great team last year, but there were a lot of little things we were missing once in awhile, and then I'd make some mistakes also. We never got on a roll.
"We had one or two good races and then two or three bad races. We never got consistently three, four, five good races in a row where we ran good. With what Ray's done, I think it's definitely going to help. So far, I'm excited with the guys I have."
Although expectations were high last year, Kahne said his 206 hopes haven't been diminished by his tough 2005 campaign. If anything, the tough times will lead to even more self-imposed pressure.
"It depends on how you look at it. Myself, I feel like there's a lot of pressure this year to make the Chase," Kahne said. "I can't miss the Chase three years in a row when Ray's got a car in it each year. That's just not what we need to do.
"Ray is changing teams. He's doing everything he can to make … everybody better. It's time to get in there [the Chase]. It's time to perform and finish races. There's pressure to do that this year, but there [were] no expectations in '04. There was more last year that I didn't live up to, so maybe this year we'll do better."
Mayfield will have a new team, despite making the Chase each of his first two seasons. Mayfield didn't have any success during the final 10 races either season, so he's not upset about a new team.
As for his teammate, Mayfield has an idea of what the past year was like for Kahne and isn't surprised he encountered the dreaded sophomore slump.
"We all know Kasey struggled a little bit last year and the year before that, his first year out, he came out running good every week," Mayfield said. "For a young driver, the first thing that happens, other than the girls and all that stuff, you get a lot of stuff thrown at you -- appearances and just different opportunities. If you're not careful, whoever is managing you and stuff, or yourself, you've got more than you can handle. Kasey has done a lot of appearances and sometimes that can take away from where you need to be. I've talked to him about that, not one way or the other, but just to give him some of my experiences."
Mayfield has endured his share of ups and downs along the way, so he knows well what a driver goes through on a daily basis. With his advice, maybe Kahne will head out of the 2006 campaign in a better mood than when he left Homestead after the season finale back in November.
"I was happy when it was over. I'm usually not like that," Kahne said. "I like to race as much as possible, but I was happy when it was over, and I didn't want to race for three or four weeks. I remember the year before, when the season was over, I still wanted to be racing and after a week I wanted to also. I'm ready to go again now, and I'm looking forward to it."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com