(Kahne's November win at Phoenix was bittersweet as Team Red Bull shut down less than two weeks later)
Nobody knew it when the season began, but 2011 turned out to be a swan song for Red Bull Racing.
The energy drink giant, which served as both owner and sponsor of the two-car Sprint Cup team since its inception, decided to pull out of NASCAR and end its foray in big time stock car racing.
Although that news didn’t officially come until near midseason, it had a tremendous impact on the organization, and general manager Jay Frye was charged with the daunting task of trying to field a competitive team while at the same time searching for investors to keep the doors open after 2011.
Kahne, who came to the team on a one-year deal before moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, was a pleasant surprise. Kahne and long-time crew chief Kenny Francis were a formidable combination and turned in an impressive campaign that included eight top five and 15 top 10 finishes topped by a November trip to Victory Lane at Phoenix International Raceway.
The win was bittersweet as it came ahead of the news that Red Bull would be shuttered for good in a matter of days.
“I wouldn't say there's anyone out there that's building better cars at this time,” Kahne said in Victory Lane. “The Red Bull guys are doing an awesome job and they haven't given up.
“It's tough to hear ... it's shutting down in eight days. Over the last three months, you have one of the top five cars in NASCAR shutting down, and that's crazy. I think it's just the people. They haven't given up. They're doing a great job. We've been able to stay focused.”
Although Kahne failed to make the Chase, he was especially strong during the playoff portion of the schedule with seven top 10 runs in the final 10 races of the season.
“Things started to click for sure and it’s because of the hard work by everybody inside the race team,” Kahne said. “Everyone was working under difficult conditions not knowing what the future held and that made what we were able to accomplish that much more impressive in my mind. I can’t thank everyone enough for their dedication.”
While Kahne and Francis were building momentum together before their move to Hendrick next season, teammate Brian Vickers was the center of controversy.
Vickers struggled throughout the season, scoring three top five finishes but ending up 28th in the final Sprint Cup standings.
His troubles began in late June was he was involved in a pair of on track scuffles with Tony Stewart at Infineon Raceway, and things got worse from there.
Vickers mustered only a pair of finishes better then 10th after the trip to Sonoma and found himself in a nasty feud with Matt Kenseth as the season wound down.
Vickers and Kenseth tangled several times in the October Martinsville race, which ended in the pair intentionally paying each other back in the closing laps.
The race featured 18 caution flags with Vickers part of five yellows.
"I certainly understand that if you're unfairly wrecked, regardless of who that person is, there's a chance retaliation is going to happen," Jimmie Johnson said after getting swept up in the Vickers retaliation to Kenseth in the final laps. "After a fourth, fifth time with the same car in the crash, you start thinking about maybe you're the problem. Something is going on. You're having a bad day. You need to stop crashing for whatever reason."
Things boiled over two weeks later at Phoenix when Vickers made contact with Kenseth’s car as the duo raced through Turn 3.
Kenseth was sure the incident was intentional.
“You have someone that has been telling everybody for four or five weeks that as soon as he got a chance at a fast race track he was going to make it hurt and wipe us out and they do nothing about it. It was so premeditated it just surprises me that they didn’t do anything,” Kenseth said in the aftermath of NASCAR not penalizing Vickers for the move.
Vickers denied doing anything wrong.
“He just lifted halfway down the backstretch,” Vickers said. “I was planning on paying him back, but he just lifted halfway down the backstretch. He just stopped. I don't know why. If he wants to doubt us, that's fine.”
Despite the effort by Frye, news of the team’s official demise came just days after the season ended in Homestead.
Frye had hoped to find new owners to remain in business and then bring in sponsors but was unsuccessful on both counts and the Sprint Cup garage will shrink by two full-time entries in 2012.
“It’s a very tough thing to deal with,” said Frye, who was forced to watch the 5-year-old team close its doors. “We had some success but in the end the business just wasn’t able to sustain itself when Red Bull decided to change direction. I’m sad but at the same time proud of what the people inside this organization were able to accomplish.”
Kahne is off to Hendrick next season while Vickers' name has not been associated with any ride for 2012.
CHECK OUT MORE POSTS FROM OUR 2011 TEAM REVIEW/2012 PREVIEW SERIES
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