Kahne red-hot rookie driving red-hot Dodge

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Red, the classic race car color. Over the past 20 years, that color has often been associated with champion driver Bill Elliott and his famous No. 9. When Elliott decided to cut back to a reduced schedule in 2004, the honor of racing the red No. 9 Dodge on the Nextel Cup circuit was given to rookie driver Kasey Kahne.
   With Elliott still in the background serving as a driver coach, a veteran teammate in Jeremy Mayfield and a solid core of crewmen around him, Kahne has experienced tremendous early success.
   "I couldn't have imagined this fast of a start," said Kahne, who will be making a first Cup Series appearance at Bristol Motor Speedway. "I was able to get in with a good team and we were able to hit it off real quick. Tommy Baldwin, Bill Elliott, Jeremy Mayfield, everybody that has been a part of it, has helped me with the Nextel Cup side of things adapting to these race cars."
   In only his second Cup Series start, Kahne came within inches of beating defending NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth at Rockingham. When the series made its next stop at Las Vegas, again Kahne finished second to Kenseth. The following week at Atlanta, the red-hot rookie scored a third straight podium finish, ending the race behind Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and teammate Mayfield.
   "I didn't expect to have three top three finishes in three of the first four races," said Kahne, who also scored two poles in the season's first five races. "We still have the same goals we set at the start of the season - Raybestos Rookie of the Year, trying to run in the Top Ten, get experience and run laps. It's right now, we're doing really good and we have a shot of winning races."
   Kahne is still with the No. 38 Great Clips team in the NASCAR Busch Series. He finished on the back bumper of Kevin Harvick at Las Vegas three weekends ago. At the 2003 season finale in Homestead (Fla.) Kahne won his first ever Busch Series race, capping off a year where he finished seventh in the final point standings. He will pull double duty this race weekend, also driving in Saturday's Sharpie Professional 250 race.
   Racing in the Busch Series also made Kahne familiar with the drivers he's battling against in this year's Rookie of the Year battle. While Kahne seems like a shoo-in at this point, the season is still less than a quarter old.
   "They all will be pretty tough," said Kahne. "Brendan Gaughan, Scott Wimmer will be tough. Johnny Sauter and Scott Riggs, they are both good drivers. It should be a good rookie race. I think Brendan Gaughan and Scott Wimmer so far look like the toughest ones to beat."
   One advantage for Kahne is working with crew chief Tommy Baldwin, whose credentials include winning the 2002 Daytona 500 with driver Ward Burton.
   "We weren't sure who was going to work with who at the start of the year," said the 23 year-old driver. "I was talking to Ray, Tommy was talking to Ray and we were talking to each other. I was really excited to find out I would be working with Tommy Baldwin. He's an awesome guy who knows how to win races. He puts all his time and effort into it."
   Of course there is the association with car owner Ray Evernham, noted for his role as crew chief for Jeff Gordon. In a recent interview, Evernham talked about the comparisons made of the two drivers. He said that his latest protégé', like Gordon a former USAC open wheel champion, is farther along at this stage of his career than Gordon was during the start of his rookie season.
   Another similarity with Gordon is each driver's bitter departure from the Ford Motor Company. Both drivers were groomed in the NASCAR Busch Series racing the Blue Oval, but went to other manufacturers once making the leap to the Cup Series. Gordon moved to the Chevrolets of car owner Rick Hendrick, while Kahne's move to Dodge away from an association with noted Ford owner Robert Yates threatened to bog down his career with legal action. In the end, each move worked out best for the driver.
   "I knew Ray Evernham had a great race team," said Kahne. "I knew he had built the team to get it to where it is now and that it had taken a little while. The way he structured it, it's going to be great and going to be around for a long time. It shows with how we're running right now."
   Kahne, a frequent winner in West Coast sprint car competition, was looked at by many open-wheel enthusiasts as the possible savior of champ car racing with him being courted by some influential people in the sport. Instead he followed the trail of sprint car heroes Ken Schrader, Gordon, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman had blazed to stock car country.
   "When I was racing sprint cars, there was some talk of me going to IRL, CART or NASCAR," said the Enumclaw, Wash. driver. "I was up for anything. You don't get too many opportunities as good as the opportunities that I have gotten. What I've gotten with Ray Evernham is the best opportunity in the world. I want to give all the effort I can to make all this stuff work.
   "Ray Evernham started with a rookie driver and won championships. He has taught me a lot already. With him and "Awesome Bill" Elliott, they always have something to help me with."
   Despite the early flourish, Kahne knows Bristol is a place that can frustrate the best drivers in the world. That's one reason, he's hesitant to make any predictions on how his first Food City 500 might turn out.
   "Bristol can bring out some tempers," said Kahne. "I've had good races there and bad races there. It's a tough track, but I like it. It's fun to go to a track like that and see the atmosphere of the crowd. The tight racing, bump and bang a little bit, that's probably where I struggle the most at of any track."