"Me bugging Mike Mittler for a chance was what really started my career," says Edwards, whose father, Carl Sr., still races on dirt tracks in the Midwest. "I first drove a race car when I was 14. And to be honest, it scared the hell out of me. But it's all I've been thinking about since."
Edwards's first full-time Cup season exceeded his wildest expectations: he won four races in '05, qualified for the Chase and finished third in the point standings.
HOMETOWN: Enumclaw, Wash.
TEAM: Evernham Motorsports
CREDENTIALS: Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year, 2004
BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT: In his rookie Cup season, in 2004, Kahne won four poles and also had three top five finishes in his first four starts.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: Kahne struggled in '05, failing to make the Chase; he'll be faster in '06 now that the Dodge Charger's aero kinks have been ironed out.
Kasey Kahne, 25. When Kahne was six, his father, Kelly, built a 1/8-mile dirt track on their 50-acre property in Enumclaw, Wash. With cows, horses and chickens often meandering across the track, Kahne began racing four-wheelers against his friends at age eight. "We'd slide all around the track," recalls Kasey. "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. On many a Friday night Kasey and his brother, Kale, would travel with their dad the 150 miles to Deming (Wash.) Speedway, where Kelly would race mini sprint cars. Then on Saturday they would drive 110 miles to Skagit, Wash., for another race. "We'd talk about racing and what makes a good car," says Kelly. "They couldn't get enough."
Kasey started racing at local tracks at age 12. Almost instantly he had what Cup drivers call a feel for the car--even when testing his sprint car at 10 mph in the driveway. "Just by doing that, Kasey would know if the car was good," says Kelly. "He was always right. Always. I couldn't do that, and I'd been racing all my life."
It was Kahne's feel for the car, in fact, that got him noticed by team owner Ray Evernham, who spotted Kahne racing open-wheel cars in Indiana in 2000. Evernham eventually offered Kahne a Cup ride on his newly formed Dodge team, and Kahne rewarded Evernham's faith by winning the '04 Rookie of the Year title. He won his first Cup race at Richmond in May '05, and most in the garage believe it's just a matter of time before Kahne contends for the title. "Kasey reminds me of a young Jeff Gordon," says three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip. "His future couldn't be any brighter."
HOMETOWN: South Bend, Ind.
TEAM: Chip Ganassi Racing
CREDENTIALS: Busch Series Rookie of the Year, 2003
BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT: In 2002, his first full season on the American Speed Association circuit, Stremme won two races and finished second in six others.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: Driving the Coors Light Dodge in 2006, Stremme should do something that Sterling Marlin couldn't in '05: reach Victory Lane.
David Stremme, 28. "It's sounds weird, but if 9/11 hadn't happened, I wouldn't be where I am right now," says Stremme, who will race the number 40 Coors Light Dodge for owner Chip Ganassi next year. In September 2001 Stremme was a racing vagabond, living in his hometown of South Bend and racing on weekends at short tracks around the Midwest. He ran in a few ASA races but figured he would never make it as a pro. "I worked as a mechanic out of high school and did that for a few years," says Stremme. "I expected that I was probably going to have keep doing that if racing didn't work out."
Then came 9/11, and in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks many sporting events were canceled or postponed. One was the ASA race in Winchester, Ind., which was pushed back seven days. The delay caused a scheduling conflict for a driver on Ron Daniels's team, and Daniels called Stremme, whom he'd seen race a few times. "That first race I sat on the pole and led the most laps," recalls Stremme. "I had a transmission problem late, but I think I showed what I could do."
Daniels hired Stremme to drive a full ASA schedule in 2002, and Stremme responded by winning two races and finishing second six times. He caught the eye of Ganassi, who hired Stremme to drive a Busch car in '03 and '04. Though he has yet to win a Busch race, he will take Sterling Marlin's Cup seat in '06. "I may not have won yet, but Chip's seen me drive a 15th-place car to a 10th-place finish," says Stremme. "I'm going to surprise some people."
Martin TRUEX JR.
HOMETOWN: Mayetta, N.J.
CREDENTIALS: 2004, '05 Busch Series Champion
BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT: In 2004 Truex, in his first full season in the Busch Series, took six checkered flags and won his first championship; he repeated in '05.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: Don't expect Cup racing's newest Junior to qualify for the Chase in 2006, but do expect him to win Rookie of the Year.
Martin Truex Jr., 25. In the fall of 2002 Truex figured he was destined to spend his career in the backwaters of the Busch North series. For a year he'd been calling Cup and regular Busch series owners, asking for a chance to test their cars, all to no avail. Then he went to Richmond in October '03 to test a car owned by his father that the younger Truex planned to run in a regular Busch series event. There, Truex was approached by Richie Gilmore, DEI's director of motor sports, whom Truex had met earlier through a mutual friend. Gilmore wanted to introduce Truex to the biggest star in NASCAR.