Even Evernham didn't see this coming

Updated: February 26, 2004, 6:00 PM ET
By Mike Massaro | ESPN

Kasey Kahne
Kahne
He was physically shaking when he climbed from the car.

No, Kasey Kahne wasn't nervous, but rather he was exhilarated after nearly shocking NASCAR Nation in Sunday's Subway 400. So when he stopped on pit road and killed the ignition, there was no stopping the adrenaline.

It took a photo finish and electronic scoring to determine that Matt Kenseth had actually won the race. But Kahne, just one-hundredth of a second behind, stole the spotlight and nearly the victory in what was only his second career Nextel Cup start.

"He blew us all away Sunday," said Kahne's car owner, Ray Evernham. "We kept waiting for him to make the rookie mistake; for him to lose his composure, for him to burn the tires off or blow the car up or wreck and he never did."

Evernham's surprise speaks volumes. After all, he was one who recognized Kahne's potential when few people even knew his name.

"Five years ago when that kid first hit the scene I knew he was gonna be one of the next (big) ones because he was just very talented and he came out of nowhere and he was beating the big guys in the USAC world," Evernham said.

Kahne, now 23, began racing micro-midgets in his home state of Washington at age 14. Before graduating high school the baby-faced phenom had won multiple championships and was garnering national attention.

In 2000 car owner Steve Lewis -- who had fielded cars for Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman during their formative years -- offered Kahne a sprint, midget and Silver Crown deal that would allow him to run the full United States Auto Club schedule. Kahne accepted and at age 20, while his parents remained in Washington, he moved to Indianapolis. That season he won the USAC Midget Series championship and was named Silver Crown rookie of the year.

It's a familiar story, especially to Evernham -- who was teamed with another USAC standout more than a decade ago. He and Jeff Gordon formed the most prolific crew chief and driver combination of the '90s, winning 47 races and three NASCAR Cup championships. So it's understandable why Evernham would consider an open wheel driver as he searched for his next prodigy.

He showed me Sunday that he is a lot farther advanced than I'm giving him credit for.
Ray Evernham on Kahne's near victory at Rockingham

"(USAC style racing) can teach drivers a tremendous amount of car control and throttle control and patience," Evernham said. "Let's face it, if you're not patient in an open wheel car or a sprint car you end up upside down."

After spending 2001 splitting time between the Toyota Atlantic Series and Formula Ford 2000 Series, Kahne headed for NASCAR. He spent the last two seasons in the Busch Series with Robert Yates Racing (2002) and Akins Motorsports (2003), both Ford teams. However, when it appeared to Kahne that his career had stalled he began looking elsewhere.

"(Ford's) indication was that I wasn't ready for Nextel Cup yet," Kahne said.

From there a battle nearly ensued. After Kahne's representatives approached Dodge and Evernham about a potential deal, Ford Motorsports publicly claimed the rights of Kahne. It appeared a legal fight laid ahead but according to Evernham that never materialized.

"I don't know that there was a battle," Evernham said. "I'm sure there were heavy discussions on (Kasey's) side but there's never been any legal action or anything like that."

What transpired between then and now is still somewhat of a mystery. Bottom line: Kahne has replaced the semi-retired Bill Elliott aboard the No. 9 Dodge.

"Ray's taking a chance on me I guess," Kahne said. "He sees something that the other car owners don't see or haven't seen."

What remains to be seen, though, is the tantalizing question. Last week's Rockingham performance leaves us all wondering what the future holds.

"Right now based on the goals of Sunday we're just going ahead racing the same way we would if Bill Elliott were in the car," Evernham said. "We'll see, I don't want to put a lot of pressure on the kid, I shouldn't kid about that stuff. But he showed me Sunday that he is a lot farther advanced than I'm giving him credit for."

Kahne knows he's earned respect and has raised the expectations of his team. But his outlook remains the same

"I kind of have my own expectations that I keep to myself usually and they're right where they're at," Kahne said "They're still the same as they have been."

Modest, yes, but why doesn't he want to elaborate on his goals?

"You don't want to sound too arrogant or say things that aren't possible," he said.

Translation: Kahne expects to win. And at Rockingham he proved that is indeed a legitimate possibility.

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.

Mike Massaro, host of ESPN2's daily NASCAR news and information program NASCAR Now, and a pit reporter for NASCAR race telecasts, has been with ESPN since 2001. An award-winning reporter for NASCAR and other sports for SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, ESPNEWS, ESPN Radio and other multi-platform programming, Massaro previously served as a reporter for ESPN's motorsports news program RPM2Night.