There they go, racing at full throttle up a muddy back road in the foothills of Mount Rainier. Kasey Kahne and his younger brother, Kale, are side-by-side on four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles, bouncing up and down at 25 mph, jaws clenched, knuckles white. It's a frosty winter morning, and the brothers are roaring toward an imaginary finish line at the 1,000-foot crown of Mount Peak, the base of which sits 500 yards from the Kahnes' family home outside Enumclaw, Wash. Hurtling around a bend on the rocky road, 24-year-old Kasey, the most promising NASCAR driver of his generation, makes a move that fans will see often in 2005: He seizes the lead.
As Kelly Kahne watches his sons zip through mountain air scented with pine needles, he smiles and shakes his head as if replaying in his mind a scene from the previous decade. "This is where Kasey first learned how to be a racer," he says. "Up on this mountain and down at our house, he learned how to maintain control of his vehicle even when he was sliding. I guess that's why he's got such good car control today."
Ah, yes, Kasey's car control. It's the reason many in NASCAR are hailing Kahne as the second coming of Jeff Gordon--and why he's a threat to win the Nextel Cup championship in just his second season on the circuit. He has the ability to keep control of his vehicle if it slides, spins or gets bumped sideways and can push the car to its limits (sometimes, beyond). In Kahne's hands the race car behaves almost as if it's a part of his body, and there's no gap in the pack that's too small for him to squeeze through. Without this skill, a driver will spend his career racing in the middle of the field.
Perhaps the best illustration of Kahne's car control came last March at Darlington ( S.C.) Raceway, in a race members of his crew still talk about. Kahne had a fast car--he led the first 11 laps--but midway through the race he cut a tire, throwing his number 9 Dodge into spin. Yet Kahne kept his car from smashing into the wall. Later in the race Kahne was bumped from behind by Tony Stewart. Again Kahne's car spun, and again Kahne kept it off the wall. Though he finished the race in 13th place, it may have been his most impressive performance of the season.
"Any athlete who is good at something has a different perception of time [than others do]," says Kahne's team owner, Ray Evernham, who was Gordon's crew chief when Gordon won the first three of his four points titles, in 1995, '97 and '98. "Kasey, like Jeff, has the ability to slow things down. He never gets behind the car; he's always ahead of it."
Standing amid the towering pines on Mount Peak, Kahne says, "I raced four-wheelers out here all the time when I was growing up, but I never imagined I'd be in this position now."
Heading into the 2004 Nextel Cup season, no one in the garage did either. Brian Vickers, the '03 Busch Series champion, was the overwhelming preseason favorite to become Rookie of the Year. Yet it was Kahne who won that title, by the largest margin in the 47-year history of the award (120 points over Brendan Gaughan in the rookie standings). Kahne started fast and made it into the Cup top 10 six times before finishing 13th. More impressive, he had a series-high five second-place finishes. ( Vickers wound up third in the rookie standings and 25th overall.) In all, Kahne had chances to take the checkered flag in about a dozen races, but some bad luck--running out of gas in one race, getting caught up in accidents in four others--kept him out of Victory Lane. That drought could end as soon as this Sunday at the Daytona 500.
Says former Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, now a Fox Sports commentator. "I remember in 1993 when Gordon was a rookie. He was always fast, but it seemed he crashed every race. Jeff got better with experience. Kasey is the same way--he's incredibly fast, and he's fearless. Now that he has a year of Cup racing under his belt, I expect him to be very, very successful this season."
like most drivers who reach the Cup circuit, Kahne started racing as a boy. His father built a one-eighth-mile dirt oval with banked turns on his 50-acre property, and by the time Kasey was eight, he was racing his friends in four-wheelers. The on-track action was often wheel-to-wheel, and young Kasey quickly became proficient in racing's most fundamental art: setting up another driver and making a pass in the corner. "We'd slide all around the track," recalls Kasey. "Then in the winter we'd pour water on our circle driveway so that it would freeze, and we'd race on the ice. It was a great learning experience."
Kasey also learned plenty from his father, who owned a logging company and raced on the weekends. On many Friday nights Kasey, Kale and their sister, Shanon, two years Kasey's elder, traveled with their dad 300 miles roundtrip to Deming (Wash.) Speedway, where Kelly would race mini sprint cars. Then on Saturday nights the Kahnes would drive 110 miles to Skagit (Wash.) Speedway for another race. Kasey and Kale were always sticking their noses under the hood and helping their father prepare the car. "The boys were great listeners," says Kelly, who is retired from logging and racing and divorced from the children's mother, Tammy. "Driving to and from the tracks, we'd constantly talk about racing and what makes a good car. They couldn't get enough."