CONCORD, N.C. (AP) – Kasey Kahne spent his first two Nextel Cup seasons locked out of the championship chase, failing to meet the lofty expectations placed on one of NASCAR’s newest starts.
His talent was unquestioned. His patience and maturity? Not so concrete. If Kahne could ever put it all together, his potential would be immeasurable.
A dozen races into his third season, Kahne is as close to the complete package as he’s ever been.
Kahne won his third race of the season on Sunday night by dethroning Jimmie Johnson in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, a race and track Johnson has owned since 2003.
The victory pushed Kahne two spots ahead in the points standings to sixth, and in solid position to finally make the race for the Nextel Cup title. After two years of disappointment, Kahne is finally a bona fide contender.
“Night and day,” Kahne said when asked to compare this season to last. “Right now I’ve got the best team out there, and it’s a blast driving for them.”
Guided by Everham
Kahne drives for car owner Ray Evernham, who knows a thing or two about young talent.
Evernham made his name as crew chief for Jeff Gordon, and the two teamed to win three championships in their seven seasons together. He left in 2000 to start his own team, an ambitious endeavor that at times has humbled the man recently voted the best crew chief in NASCAR history.
He started his two-car team with veteran Bill Elliott, who only had enough gas in his tank to run three full seasons, and wide-eyed Casey Atwood.
Evernham struck out badly with Atwood, whom he mistakenly believed he could mold into the next Gordon. He was replaced by Jeremy Mayfield, a dependable driver who always shows up prepared and ready to go. He may win a race here or there, and he sneaked his way into the Chase for the championship the past two seasons, but he’s never contended for the title – and at 37 years old, time is running out.
Replacing a legend
So when Elliott scaled back after 2003, Evernham needed a budding star for his flagship No. 9 Dodge.
He needed someone young, with a full career ahead of him but a quick learning curve. Evernham believed he found it in Kahne, who was stuck in neutral in Ford’s driver development program.
Kahne believed he had a loophole in his Ford deal and signed on with Evernham for the 2004 season. Ford fought back in court, but it was really too late – Kahne was already in a Dodge and on his way to 14 top 10s in his rookie season.
He was in position to make the Chase in its final qualifying race, but faltered that night, missed the playoffs and wound up a disappointing 13th in the final standings.
But it set the tone for what was supposed to be a banner 2005 season.
It was anything but.
Kahne’s production dropped off across the board, he again missed the Chase and wound up 23rd in the standings. And even though Mayfield was in the playoffs, he was never a title contender and finished ninth – avoiding last place only because Kurt Busch missed the final two races of the year.
Evernham was disgusted with the results, and viewed it as a larger problem at his race shop. So he overhauled everything and eliminated the crew chief position (remember, that’s the job that made Evernham).
He spread out the responsibilities between a crew of leaders, headed by what Evernham calls a “team director” and tinkered with the Charger chassis to make it more competitive.
Kahne took off after the changes. The alterations to the Charger fit his driving style, and he’s thrived under team director Kenny Francis and crew.
Evernham knew all along it was only a matter of time.
“When I hired him I knew he was a smart racer and it would just take a little time,” Evernham said. “This is a tough sport. You go up and down in it, but he studies hard, and he’s committed to doing the things it takes to win races and communicating with the guys.”
Kahne’s success – and the addition of a third car this year driven by Scott Riggs – may have come at the expense of Mayfield, who has struggled with the chassis changes and lost key team members in the companywide reshuffling of personnel.
But all three drivers closed with solid runs at Lowe’s.
Riggs and Mayfield sat on the front row for the 600, and Mayfield’s 15th-place finish was his second best result of the season. Riggs almost had a chance to win it until a late mistake in the pits took him out of contention, and gave Kahne one less obstacle in the path to Victory Lane.
Kahne passed Johnson and Carl Edwards with 29 laps to go Sunday night, then pulled out to such a huge lead that Johnson never had a chance to catch him.
It ended Johnson’s streak of five consecutive wins at Lowe’s, three of them in the 600.
“That’s all I ever wanted here, was a car that could race with Jimmie at the end,” Kahne said. “You know every time you get to the end of a race at Charlotte, Jimmie Johnson is the guy to beat.
“We finally made it to that point and had a car that could race him and we were able to win.”