The golf cart whizzed through the garage area at California
Speedway in Fontana last Friday, then slowed to pass a crush of
Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans. Riding shotgun in the cart was
apple-cheeked Nextel Cup rookie Kasey Kahne. Spotting the
24-year-old racer, an Earnhardt fan with a ZZ Top beard shouted
something that caused Kahne's head to turn--and his mind to spin.
"Keep this up," the fan said, "and damn, Kasey, I might leave
Earnhardt for you!"
Kahne (pronounced KANE) flashed a smile and then shared a secret
with another passenger in the cart. "This wouldn't be happening
if I hadn't gone to night school and finished high school early,"
he said. "I wouldn't have been at the right place at the right
time. All of this started back then."
Where Kahne is right now is atop NASCAR's rookie class of 2004,
and in Fontana he reaffirmed that status. In qualifying for the
Auto Club 500 on Friday, he got his third pole position of the
season, giving him more poles through eight races than any rookie
since Dick Hutcherson in 1965. Then on Sunday, Kahne led 77 of
the 250 laps--second most of any driver--and was in contention
for his third top three finish of the year before running out of
gas on the penultimate lap. While Jeff Gordon blazed to the
checkered flag for his second consecutive win, Kahne had to pit
for a splash of gas and finished 13th. Gordon is third in the
season points standings, behind Jimmie Johnson and leader Dale
Earnhardt Jr.; Kahne is 11th.
"Kasey is a terrific little race car driver," said Kahne's crew
chief, Tommy Baldwin. "He did nothing to lose this race. The best
is yet to come for him, I promise."
Growing up in Enumclaw, Wash., Kahne started racing open-wheel
cars at 14. In his junior year of high school he began taking
night classes at a local community college, which allowed him to
graduate six months early and start racing full time in January
1998. The dominoes of his career then started to fall: In 2000 he
won the USAC Midget championship; in '02 he earned a ride in the
Busch Series and caught the attention of Cup owner Ray Evernham.
What impressed Evernham most was Kahne's car control. Like
several other former open-wheel racers in the Nextel Cup--such as
Gordon, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart--Kahne excels at steering a
race car if it starts to slide. That ability to keep his car out
of trouble should soon make Kahne a title contender.
"This young man has as much talent as anybody I've seen in a
long, long time," says Evernham, who won three titles as Gordon's
crew chief in the '90s. "When you can find someone who can
communicate what the car is doing while he's still learning the
racetracks, they're pretty special."
Formula One's Heir Apparent?
The Formula One season is only four races old, but already the
championship picture is in sharp focus. Michael Schumacher, who
won his sixth F/1 title last year, has taken the checkered flag
in all four races. At this point only two drivers appear capable
of catching him: his Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello (who
trails Schumacher by 16 points in the driver standings) and
England's Jenson Button (17 points behind Schumacher).
The biggest surprise of 2004 has been the 24-year-old Button
(right), who drives for the British team B.A.R. Two weeks ago in
Imola, Italy, he became the first Englishman since Damon Hill in
1996 to win a pole position. Though Button has never made it to
Victory Lane in 67 F/1 starts, he's already accumulated three top
three finishes this season. His success heading into this
Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona has fueled speculation
that when the 35-year-old Schumacher retires--possibly at the end
of this season--Button will take his seat at Ferrari.
"One day Michael is going to stop," says Ferrari technical
director Ross Brown. "Then we will look around for a replacement
and see who is the best at that stage. Jenson will be on that
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