Let It Rain
So said KaseyKahne, who, leading at Michigan when the skies opened, earned his fourthvictory in a breakout season
As soon as thenews came, Kasey Kahne climbed down from the shelter of his covered pit box andset off, beaming, on a victory stroll through the driving rain. Sunday's 3MPerformance 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., had justbeen called after 129 laps, and Kahne, who was leading when the skies opened,had been declared the winner. Now he couldn't find a checkered flag, and hesure couldn't do a burnout, so he celebrated by simply pumping his fist towardthe crush of soggy fans who were pushing against a chain-link fence along pitroad, trying to get closer to NASCAR's biggest surprise of the season.
"Back inFebruary, I never thought I'd have four wins after 15 races," says the26-year-old Kahne, who's in his third season of Cup racing. "We'vedefinitely exceeded where we thought we'd be at this time of the season. Now wejust have to keep it going."
Starting from thepole, Kahne on Sunday showed exactly why he has developed into a titlecontender after earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2004 and then slumping toa 23rd-place finish in the standings in his sophomore season. On Lap 47 Kahne,running strongly in third place, had to pit under the green flag after a pieceof debris got caught on the grill of his number 9 Dodge, causing his engine tooverheat; Kahne dropped to 38th, a lap behind the leaders. Then, ignoring theadvice of his spotter to be patient, Kahne, knowing that a storm wasapproaching, blasted through the field, making daring four- and five-widepasses. He seized the lead on Lap 117, and seven laps later the rains came. Hisseries-best fourth win lifted him from fifth to third in the pointstandings.
"Kasey isgrowing up very, very fast as a racer," says his team owner, Ray Evernham."Ninety percent of the time when I tell him he needs to do something alittle differently, he already knows what I'm going to say before I sayit."
Kahne's turnaroundthis season is rooted not only in his increasingly polished driving but also inEvernham's decision last winter to restructure the hierarchy of his three raceteams. Instead of granting each crew chief absolute decision-makingpower--which is how NASCAR teams have done business since the days of RichardPetty and David Pearson--Evernham divided responsibility among a team director(who's in charge of race-day decisions), a car director (who has final say onthe vehicle's setup) and an engineer (who analyzes the car's performance duringthe race). This is how Formula One teams operate, and the model is working sowell for Evernham that it may soon be copied throughout the Cup garage.
"Now we've gotmore people involved in all the key decisions," says Kahne. "Thecommunication across all Evernham is so much better. It's been a huge factor inour success."
Kahne has now wonthe last four NASCAR races that have been held on 1.5- or two-mile tracks.These are the types of venues that make up the bulk of the Chase for the NextelCup--half of the 10 title races are on these intermediate-length tracks--andeven the understated Kahne is starting to believe that he's a bona fidecontender.
"Every timeyou win, it makes it easier to get that next one," he said late on Sundayas he stood in a near-empty infield conference room in his still-soakeddriver's uniform. "We're just trying to make the Chase. Then once wedo...."
Kahne paused.Grinning as though he were privy to a private joke, he added, "Then, well,who knows?"
More NASCARanalysis by Lars Anderson at SI.com/racing.
The most relieved men at Michigan were Dale EarnhardtJr. and Jeff Gordon. NASCAR's two most popular drivers have struggled recentlyat intermediate-length tracks, but both were smiling when the rain came. Afterdueling each other for the lead at one point, Earnhardt finished a respectablethird, Gordon eighth.... On Sunday, Bill Lester (right) became the firstAfrican-American driver to finish on the lead lap of a Cup race since WendellScott won the Turkey Day 200 at Jacksonville Speedway on Dec. 1, 1963. Lestercame in 32nd.... Don't expect Kasey Kahne to take the checkered flag again thisSunday at the road course in Sonoma, Calif. A Dodge driver has never won a Cupseries event that features both left- and righthand turns.