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Youthful Kahne speeds into NASCAR's upper level

June 04, 2006|by JASON STEIN / Wheelbase Communications

Looking back, perhaps those students at Enumclaw High School in Washington State knew a little more than the rest of the world.

Somehow, it seems, it was easy to spot the curly haired kid with the radiant smile. And it wasn't just because he liked fast cars, greasy garages and spending his weekends on dirt tracks across the United States upper northwest.

Kasey Kahne had something intangible.

And when his classmates voted him the most likely to succeed after graduation, well, the kid took it to heart.

"I was never out to prove anything to anyone," Kahne once said in an interview on one of his many fan Web sites. "I just wanted to race and win."

He has hardly let those classmates down.

Kahne, now just barely edging into his 26th year, is quickly becoming one of the hottest celebrities on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuit. He's one of the youngest "Young Guns," NASCAR's marketing phrase for the hot group of 20-something drivers who have quickly transformed closed-wheel racing into something as popular as the Fourth of July.

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"I think he's just getting warmed up," said Kelly Kahne, Kasey's father, in a recent interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "And when Kasey gets in that comfort zone, working with the right people, with the right equipment, he'll think he can win every race."

For the racing world, that's dangerous.

Already this year, Kahne has collected multiple victories and climbed into the top 10 in NASCAR points.

Not that you'd ever hear it directly from Kasey.

His friends in the garage call him more contemplative than an engineer; more thoughtful than boastful. And he's one cool character.

Two years ago, he walked into the NEXTEL Cup series after a short stint in the Busch series, the minor leagues of NASCAR. All Kahne did was assume the driver's seat once held by the legendary Bill Elliott then walk away with a garage full of runner-up finishes and the Rookie of the Year honors.

Last year there were too many mechanical failures, crashes and disappointments. His critics said it was a "sophomore slump." Kahne had a prediction.

"I know we'll be way better in 2006," he said on NASCAR.com, before the season began. "That's a promise."

Kahne's first interest in racing came on dirt tracks in his home state of Washington where he began attending sprint-car races with his father. He was just a year old. By age 14 he was racing.

He won four races in his first season running Micro Midgets, a dirt track circuit for beginners, and eventually moved up to the United States Auto Club Midget Series, where he again impressed with his skill for speed. In 2001, while running a limited schedule with the open-wheel Toyota Atlantic Series, the Formula Ford 2000 Series and the USAC Midget Series, Kahne again seemed destined for great things. He won the "Night Before the 500" race at Indianapolis Raceway Park in Indiana in May 2001, becoming the first driver to win the event in consecutive years since someone named Jeff Gordon did the same thing in 1989 and 1990.

"I raced pavement, dirt, sprint cars, midgets ... we raced two cars in the same night," Kahne once told The Sporting News magazine. "You hop out of a midget and jump into a sprint car on the same racetrack. There were times that we raced dirt during the day and a pavement track at night in another car."

Influential people in larger circuits quickly took notice.

In 2002, Kahne signed with legendary NASCAR owner Robert Yates to drive in a limited NASCAR Busch series schedule. He competed in 20 events placing no higher than 10th. Kahne went back to Washington, ran some more dirt tracks, and went back at it again a year later, this time finishing seventh in the standings and then winning a ride in the Ray Evernham Motorsports No. 9 Dodge for the 2003 season.

Kahne was elated.

"I guess I always knew what I wanted to do, but everything really happened so quickly."

And what happened in 2004, couldn't have happened any quicker.

Few rookies have had the kind of impact on the NASCAR circuit that Kahne had that year. At the beginning of the season, he was an unknown rookie. By the end, he was a household name.

Kahne had 13 top-five finishes, qualified first four times and easily claimed the rookie honors. Kahne's life quickly turned upside-down.

He bought a black Dodge Durango, wore black sunglasses at shopping malls and began to assume a celebrity's identity. Fishing, snowboarding, snowmobiling - all Kahne pastimes - were a lot harder to do.

"It's different when you go from no one knowing your name, to everyone knowing it," he said.

This year, Kahne is back trying to make sure no one forgets it again. And, again, others are taking notice.

"You see patience and car control in Kasey," fellow driver and 2005 NASCAR points champion Tony Stewart told The Sporting News. "You see natural talent. You see a lot of guys who come up and have the best cars and can't do anything with them. You see guys that come up and are in mediocre equipment but make it rise to the top. Kasey was one of those guys that no matter what he gets in he was good."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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