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Caraviello: Francis is 'one of the smartest guys in the garage'

January 13, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Kenny Francis and Kasey Kahne were hardly strangers to the Hendrick team last year, easing their transition for 2012. (Autostock)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Francis' skills prove Kahne isn't the only major offseason addition at Hendrick

He was supposed to be a driver. Kenny Francis started out behind the wheel, racing Late Models throughout the southeast, and on tracks as large as Richmond International Raceway. About once a month, he'd venture over to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and compete against regulars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. The two struck up a friendship, and when Little E made his first foray into what is now the Nationwide Series, he tried to convince his father to add Francis to the team.

For Francis, though, it was too soon, and the elder Earnhardt could see it. "He told me, 'If you still want to drive, you should just keep driving. Don't come to work for me, keep driving,'" Francis remembered Friday during Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona International Speedway. "I did it for a few more years, and ended up coming to work in racing anyway."

"All of us at Hendrick have been raised at Hendrick, and we think that's a great positive in a lot of ways. But [it's good] any time you get someone else's opinions or just a different way of looking at things."

--STEVE LETARTE ON KENNY FRANCIS

These days he wears a headset instead of a helmet and holds a clipboard instead of a steering wheel, but that former driver is always in there. The newest crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, Francis is something of an outsider, both in his background and his approach. Kasey Kahne is the major offseason addition this year for the powerhouse NASCAR organization, whose No. 5 car is now piloted by the youngster from Washington state. But equally as important may be the arrival of Francis, who moved over from Red Bull with his driver, and brings a different way of thinking to a team that has promoted many of its primary mechanical minds from within.

"They've just been raised in a different place," said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief. "All of us at Hendrick have been raised at Hendrick, and we think that's a great positive in a lot of ways. But [it's good] any time you get someone else's opinions or just a different way of looking at things. So we're excited about having him on board. Without a doubt, I've been picking his brain on a lot of things."

And not just this year. Francis and Kahne have known their Hendrick destination for more than a year, dating back to their days together at Richard Petty Motorsports, and used their stint at Red Bull as a single-season way station to allow Mark Martin to finish out his contract in the No. 5. Over the second half of last season, Hendrick's crew chiefs began to solicit input from their future teammate, even though he was working for a different team and a different manufacturer at the time. Chad Knaus asked for Francis' thoughts on a setup decision during the fall race weekend at Dover, and Letarte used Francis setup tactics in the No. 88 car for the finale at Homestead.

"I had one of the best cars I've ever had at Homestead, running some of the things he preferred to run on his cars," Earnhardt said. Francis brings "a lot of new ideas on setups, how to build cars, how cars should be built. Not a better way, just a different idea. You kind of form your opinion one way or another. He's very smart, very talented. ... I think he'll be a great addition to the organization, without a doubt. He's one of the smartest guys in the garage. I'm sure we'll run better everywhere [this] year, and I'm sure he'll have an influence on that."

Added Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon: "It's nice, because it opens your eyes to some different things, which is a positive thing," he said. "But it's also a challenge, because everybody is used to doing things a certain way. You can't really lose what we do well, you just want to add to that. There's some balance there."

Francis began working more closely with the Hendrick teams around the time of last fall's electronic fuel injection test in Charlotte, in which Kahne wheeled the No. 5 for the first time. At Dover, the No. 48 team wasn't completely satisfied with a practice session in which Kahne's former Red Bull car had been fast. Francis shared his philosophy on a few areas, and Knaus used the input to make some setup tweaks for the race. Then as now, Francis' outsider perspectives seemed to be welcomed on a team that's trying to climb back to the top in NASCAR's premier series.

"You get pigeonholed into a corner, in decisions your company makes, your team makes," Johnson said. "You sometimes are only seeing what's in your corner. When somebody comes in with a totally different way to do it, it just sparks new ideas and thoughts. We're all hopeful that Kenny is going to come in and create a good spark for everybody."

That spark may be particularly evident when the series reaches intermediate tracks, an area where Hendrick occasionally lagged behind the competition last season. Francis is known throughout the garage area as a downforce expert, so it's natural to think his addition will help the organization as a whole in that domain. That's no small detail, given how intermediate tracks dominate the Sprint Cup schedule, and another reason why the new crew chief on the No. 5 car may be a component every bit as important as the driver.

"They definitely felt like they were struggling a little more on intermediate-style tracks than they had been used to," Francis said. "Not that they were struggling, but they were not running as well as they were accustomed to running. We felt like we made some pretty big gains on it last year, which should help everyone."

Francis, who quit driving in the mid-1990s -- he was getting too old, and had to find a real job, he said -- also brings that perspective of having been behind the wheel. As much as he loved racing, he was more attracted the processes that made vehicles go fast, which led him to test driving and trying experimental things with the car. It seemed a natural bridge from driver to crew chief, a link from his former career to his current one. "I think that actually lends itself to what I do now," he said. "... That definitely gives me a different spin on things. But it's been a long time since I've raced. I'm out of practice."

These days, that duty belongs to Kahne. The two have worked together exclusively since 2006, back in the days of Evernham Motorsports, and Kahne said he's sometimes asked whether he demanded that Rick Hendrick make Francis the crew chief on the No. 5 car. From the driver's perspective, Francis earned the job on his own merit.

"It was something where I went in, and when I was talking to Mr. Hendrick when we were getting the deal done, I told him, 'Man, Kenny is really good, he should be part of this place, and it would be great if he was my crew chief,'" Kahne remembered. "And they're like, 'Yeah, we're going to look at it, we're going to figure it out.' And from there it was all them wanting Kenny Francis. So it's been good. It's been a really good fit for everyone."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.