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Lars Anderson
June 26, 2006
Let It Rain
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June 26, 2006

Motor Sports

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Let It Rain

So said Kasey Kahne, who, leading at Michigan when the skies opened, earned his fourth victory in a breakout season

As soon as the news came, Kasey Kahne climbed down from the shelter of his covered pit box and set off, beaming, on a victory stroll through the driving rain. Sunday's 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., had just been called after 129 laps, and Kahne, who was leading when the skies opened, had been declared the winner. Now he couldn't find a checkered flag, and he sure couldn't do a burnout, so he celebrated by simply pumping his fist toward the crush of soggy fans who were pushing against a chain-link fence along pit road, trying to get closer to NASCAR's biggest surprise of the season.

"Back in February, I never thought I'd have four wins after 15 races," says the 26-year-old Kahne, who's in his third season of Cup racing. "We've definitely exceeded where we thought we'd be at this time of the season. Now we just have to keep it going."

Starting from the pole, Kahne on Sunday showed exactly why he has developed into a title contender after earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2004 and then slumping to a 23rd-place finish in the standings in his sophomore season. On Lap 47 Kahne, running strongly in third place, had to pit under the green flag after a piece of debris got caught on the grill of his number 9 Dodge, causing his engine to overheat; Kahne dropped to 38th, a lap behind the leaders. Then, ignoring the advice of his spotter to be patient, Kahne, knowing that a storm was approaching, blasted through the field, making daring four- and five-wide passes. He seized the lead on Lap 117, and seven laps later the rains came. His series-best fourth win lifted him from fifth to third in the point standings.

"Kasey is growing up very, very fast as a racer," says his team owner, Ray Evernham. "Ninety percent of the time when I tell him he needs to do something a little differently, he already knows what I'm going to say before I say it."

Kahne's turnaround this season is rooted not only in his increasingly polished driving but also in Evernham's decision last winter to restructure the hierarchy of his three race teams. Instead of granting each crew chief absolute decision-making power--which is how NASCAR teams have done business since the days of Richard Petty and David Pearson--Evernham divided responsibility among a team director (who's in charge of race-day decisions), a car director (who has final say on the vehicle's setup) and an engineer (who analyzes the car's performance during the race). This is how Formula One teams operate, and the model is working so well for Evernham that it may soon be copied throughout the Cup garage.

"Now we've got more people involved in all the key decisions," says Kahne. "The communication across all Evernham is so much better. It's been a huge factor in our success."

Kahne has now won the last four NASCAR races that have been held on 1.5- or two-mile tracks. These are the types of venues that make up the bulk of the Chase for the Nextel Cup--half of the 10 title races are on these intermediate-length tracks--and even the understated Kahne is starting to believe that he's a bona fide contender.

"Every time you win, it makes it easier to get that next one," he said late on Sunday as he stood in a near-empty infield conference room in his still-soaked driver's uniform. "We're just trying to make the Chase. Then once we do...."

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