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 tide 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."