At 12 Kasey followed his dad onto the sprint tracks. It was immediately apparent that he had an instinctive feel for the car, even when simply driving at 10 mph around the family driveway. "Just by doing that, Kasey would know if the car was good or not," says Kelly. "He was always right. Always. I couldn't do that, and I'd been racing all my life."
In January 1999, Kasey and Shanon packed up the family truck, put the family's sprint car in a hauler and moved to Indianapolis, the open-wheel capital of the U.S. With his dad underwriting his expenses and Shanon handling the logistics and acting as her brother's p.r. agent, Kasey raced his sprint car three to four times a week at tracks in the Midwest, hoping to catch the attention of a deep-pocketed team owner. Though he was fast from the start and won several races, his hard-charging style led to all-or-nothing results. One autumn night in '99, during one of Kasey's regular calls home after races, Kelly told his son that he was thinking of pulling the plug on Kasey's racing dream. "At that point Kasey had wrecked six cars," Kelly recalls. "I had spent about $750,000, and the money was running out. I said, 'The next car you wreck will be your last. You'll be coming home.'"
But a month later Kasey got his big break: Open-wheel owner Steve Lewis, whose roster of drivers on their way up has included Gordon, Stewart and Ryan Newman, offered Kahne rides in the USAC Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown Series. Driving for Lewis, Kahne won the 2000 Midget championship and finished 10th in the Silver Crown points standings, earning rookie-of-the-year honors. He also won the 500 Classic at Indianapolis Raceway Park in '00 and '01, becoming the first driver to take back-to-back victories in the annual event since Jeff Gordon in 1989 and '90.
With his career on the rise, Kahne got an offer to drive for Robert Yates Racing in the 2002 Busch Series. But he struggled in NASCAR's version of Triple A baseball; in 20 starts that year his average finish was 22.8. In 34 starts in 2003 his average finish rose to only 15.1. But Evernham, who needed a Nextel driver to replace the retiring Bill Elliott in his number 9 Dodge in '04, was intrigued by Kahne.
In the fall of 2000 Evernham had been introduced to Kahne by John Bickford, who is Gordon's stepfather and a noted racing talent scout, and Bickford had raved about Kahne's skills. After Evernham had seen Kahne race a few times, he too saw the similarities between Kahne and Gordon. "Kasey is a lot like Jeff in that he's smart, articulate and can communicate what's going on with the car," says Evernham. "Even though Kasey struggled in the Busch Series, I wasn't too concerned because a lot of open-wheel guys don't do well in Busch. Kasey grew up driving cars that are overpowered and slide around. Busch cars aren't that way. They have a hundred less horsepower than Cup cars. I really believed that Kasey would do better in Cup than in Busch."
Evernham was right. After blowing an engine and finishing 41st in the Daytona 500 last year, Kahne raced to a second-place finish the next week at Rockingham, followed by another runner-up spot at Las Vegas and a third at Atlanta. It was one of the best starts by a rookie in the 55-year history of NASCAR. Says Tommy Baldwin, Kahne's veteran crew chief, "Because Kasey is so fast, when our car's setup is close to perfect, we're usually faster than the field. The bottom line with Kasey is, I have a lot bigger window to work with in going faster than I've ever had before."
Kahne's quick start in '04 made him an instant fan favorite. Six weeks after his souvenir trailer sold $6,000 worth of merchandise at Daytona, his sales at Texas Motor Speedway surpassed $100,000. By season's end only Dale Earnhardt Jr. was selling more personalized merchandise than Kahne, whose hottest-selling item was the women's tank top. Yes, Kahne's rise in popularity has been driven largely by female race fans. Unlike the other major sports in America, which attract an overwhelmingly male audience, NASCAR'S fan base of 75 million is about 40% female. And no other driver in NASCAR, not even Little E, makes the ladies weaker in the knees than Kahne, with his boyish face and apple cheeks. Walk through any infield with Kahne, and you'll see women of all ages run up to him and pass along their cell number or have him sign body parts (in some cases, R-rated ones).
"It's scary at times at how out of control this whole thing has gotten," says Kahne, who last June was named by PEOPLE magazine one of the 50 hottest bachelors of 2004. "I mean, scary. I really need to find a girlfriend."
up on Mount Peak, Kahne and his brother tear into the sparkling Pacific Northwest morning. They bolt down a muddy road, and minutes later come buzzing back up, racing to the summit. It's not even close: Kasey reaches the top of the mountain well ahead. "Dude, can't you go any faster than that?" Kasey says to Kale at the finish line, laughing. "Really, how fast can you go? How fast?"
Funny, beginning this weekend, those are the questions that everyone in NASCAR will be asking Kasey. How fast?