Francis and driver Kasey Kahne won a series-best six races in 2006, and then they struggled just to finish in the top five in 2007. So they started over.
"It's always harder to stay on top, at least at our place," Francis said as he prepared the No. 9 Dodge for Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. "We've gone through a lot of cycles at our place -- up, down, up, down. We didn't keep looking far enough ahead.
"We knew what we did last year, and we knew that wasn't good. We knew a baseline where we didn't want to be. We threw our notes out and started over."
The fresh approach is working; Kahne is back at full speed. He enters Saturday's race with two wins and a 10th-place spot in the Sprint Cup Series standings.
Many things contributed to the team's downfall a year ago, including a transfer to primary ownership from Ray Evernham to George Gillett. Resources and research got lost in the shuffle during the most-challenging time in the sport's history.
The schedule called for two different cars -- a traditional racer and the new, winged Car of Tomorrow -- and Francis got behind on both.
The fall was both dramatic and troubling. But the midseason sale was a timely distraction that kept the team from making any drastic changes.
"It was hard to go through that, trying to figure out what we had wrong with the car," Francis said. "It's all part of it. We don't have near the number of people working on things like the big teams do that hit on it year in and year out. We got behind last year on the body of the old car. Once we got that figured out, we were behind on the COT car.
"We really didn't know we were behind. It took some time to know what to fix. We have an evolution of setups after 2006 and again in 2007. You didn't know which way to go with it. We didn't want to spend a lot of money on it because we didn't know where to go."
Francis made things simple. He has a handful of simple setups to make sure the team doesn't veer too far away from some proven baselines. Kahne's done the rest.
"When your car is close, you make small adjustments and keep making it better," Kahne said. "When it is far off, you're not going to win a race unless you do it on fuel mileage or another way. You don't beat these guys; there's too much competition not to start the race with a good race car. It is about the only way to win a Sprint Cup race when the green flag comes out.
"The best way to have good morale is win races. The best thing is to win poles, be fast in practice and be fast every weekend. That's what gets everybody going."
Through it all, Francis never got too excited when the team was on a roll in 2006; he never got too down when the team went winless a year ago.
Now that the team's back on track, Francis still refuses to get too caught up in the excitement. He spends time away from the speedway pouring through notes and looking for new ideas on the computer. It's a job that never ends.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BACK ON TRACK -- AGAIN
For the second time in four years, Kenny Francis and Kasey Kahne scrapped their game plans and started over in 2008 after a dismal 2007. A look at the past three years through 17 races:
|YEAR||AVG. START||AVG. FINISH||WINS||TOP 10s|
COKE ZERO 400
(RACE NO. 18 OF 36)
WHERE: Daytona International Speedway at Daytona Beach, Fla.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
TRACK DIMENSIONS: 2.5-mile tri-oval with 31-degree banking
BROADCAST: Television -- 6:30 p.m. TNT; Radio -- 7:30 p.m., Motor Racing Network, Sirius Satellite Radio 128
LAST YEAR'S WINNER: Jamie McMurray