Atlanta: Kasey Kahne - NASCAR spotlight

Kasey Kahne latest former open-wheeler to emerge in NASCAR DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 9, 2004) -- Kasey Kahne is part of a pack of drivers who in recent years have forsaken open-wheel racing for NASCAR. Suddenly, Kahne (No. 9 Dodge...

Kasey Kahne latest former open-wheeler to emerge in NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 9, 2004) -- Kasey Kahne is part of a pack of drivers who in recent years have forsaken open-wheel racing for NASCAR.

Suddenly, Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers-UAW Dodge) is a leader of that pack, a Raybestos Rookie of the Year favorite emerging as a contender to also win races, all the while replacing a future Hall of Fame driver who is arguably the most popular driver in NASCAR history.

At the start of this season, Kahne was cast mainly as the eager student of semi-retired mentor Bill Elliott, who gave up his primary Evernham Motorsports ride in favor of a limited schedule in another Ray Evernham-owned Dodge, the No. 91. Coming into Sunday's Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kahne looks like he learns as fast as he drives.

He's eighth in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10. He started on the pole for last Sunday's race in Las Vegas, where he went on to finish second behind reigning series champion Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford).

And in the previous race, at Rockingham, N.C., Kahne also was runner-up to Kenseth, only 0.010-second behind. As further emphasis of his emergence, don't forget that in last Saturday's NASCAR Busch Series race at Las Vegas, Kahne started third and finished second.

"To run second for two consecutive [NASCAR NEXTEL Cup] races is a great accomplishment," Kahne said. "There is no doubt I would've liked to have won, but I know we'll be in Victory Lane eventually. I never expected this so soon."

Kahne is on the definitive roll, at just the right time. At Atlanta Motor Speedway he'll be greeted by thousands of fans who unquestionably will miss the sight of Elliott in the No. 9. AMS is the "home track" of Elliott, who hails from Dawsonville, Ga. Those fans will be eager to judge for themselves the ability of Elliott's replacement.

Likewise, those fans have to be encouraged about Kahne's showing thus far. The student, already, is looking a lot like the mentor.

Kahne easily could've taken another road, in cars without fenders. He was being cast as a future open-wheel star several years ago after winning the USAC Midget championship and the USAC Silver Crown Bullet Series Rookie of the Year title, both in 2000. The next season he moved on to Toyota Atlantic and Formula Ford competition.

In 2002 he made the switch, to the NASCAR Busch Series. A two-year stint in the nation's No. 2 motorsports series was the perfect proving ground for advancement to the premier competitive setting of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.

Kahne is one of many NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers who have flocked from open-wheel racing. Others include Casey Mears (No. 41 Target Dodge), Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge), Robby Gordon (No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet), Larry Foyt (No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Dodge), Dave Blaney (No. 23 Whelen Dodge), John Andretti (No. 1 DEI/Snap-On Chevrolet) plus two former series champions -- 2002 titlist Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) and four-time champ Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet).

Mears, another former NASCAR Busch Series driver, who is coming off his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup top-10 finish, is convinced the move was the proper one for him, considering he's driving for established owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates.

"I miss open wheel a little bit, but I've got to tell you, I'm so happy with where I am," said Mears, who was seventh at Las Vegas. "I'm really pleased with where I'm at right now as far as the team I'm with and what's going on. I'm really happy with stock car racing in general and NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. I'm in a good place right now.

"I'm having a blast during the races. There's always someone to race with whether you're running 40th or in the top five. There's always someone to battle with [in this form of motorsports]. I'm definitely happy that I got an opportunity to come in this direction."

Kahne has had a similar experience -- finding his way in the NASCAR Busch Series, then being signed by one of the major NASCAR NEXTEL Cup organizations.

"I came into it as having a huge seat to fill [in Elliott's absence]," Kahne said. "I was going to do whatever I could to not make mistakes and do everything I could right. Everything that Ray Evernham has asked me to do on and off the track, I've tried to do to keep everything flowing. We've been lucky enough to race good, too.

"Bill will call me up on the phone and I'll talk to him or I'll see him at the track. I've talked to him a few times this week about Atlanta. ... So far it's been great. I know it can turn bad at any time. I've had a lot of good things happen in racing, but I've also had a lot of bad things. I've learned a lot. My first year in Busch, I think I did everything wrong you can do in a Busch car and get away with it or not get away with it. We don't have to go through a learning curve like that [with this team]."


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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers John Andretti , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Robby Gordon , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Larry Foyt , Kasey Kahne , Ray Evernham , Dave Blaney , Felix Sabates , A.J. Foyt