- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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LAS VEGAS -- He's become an unlikely hero in an unlikely manner.
While many people predicted early greatness for guys like Scott Wimmer, Brian Vickers and Brendan Gaughan in this year's Nextel Cup rookie crop, it's been Kasey Kahne who has quickly become the biggest name among first-year drivers.
"In my mind, I think I should be the best rookie, that I should be up front, but in a lot of other people's minds, yeah, I'm probably one of the more unlikely rookies to be doing good," said Kahne, the diminutive 23-year-old from Enumclaw, Wash., population 8,750. "It might be an advantage, then again it might not be. I still have the rookie stripe on the back (of the car)."
While several preseason comparisons were made between Vickers and a young Jeff Gordon, or Gaughan and a young Rusty Wallace, Kahne was at best an unknown commodity. Despite Kahne's success in other series, it was difficult to handicap just how good he'd be in Cup racing.
But with back-to-back runner-up finishes at Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (where he also started from the pole), as well as two weeks ago in Rockingham, N.C. -- and throw in another second-place finish in Saturday's Busch Series event at LVMS -- the soft-spoken Kahne is letting his driving do most of his talking for him.
"I never expected this," Kahne said. "Things have been going really smooth. I've never been in such a good situation. I've never been able to work with so many good people and figure out race cars, figure out what to do during the run. We went from good at the start (of Sunday's race) to all right to bad to all right to good. That's a lot of changes. That's a lot of hard work from the team.
"I think we've got lots of confidence and we're gaining more. It's fun driving for these guys and getting to work with them every week."
While Kahne's success thus far this season may be a surprise to some, it's not for others who've followed his career over the last few years. How could it be, given some of the entries on Kahne's résumé?
Sure, most of his driving experience has been in the open-wheel world, but it's hard to ignore the value of some of those elements. After all, he was handpicked by longtime sprint car owner Steve Lewis to compete in the USAC Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown series during the 2000 season. If Lewis' name sounds familiar, he also has owned cars and helped get the careers started for current Cup superstars Gordon, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman.
"Tony and I both have done a lot of the same things in midgets and sprint cars and silver crown cars," Kahne said of Stewart. "Our driving style is similar. The more horsepower and the longer wheelbase is something I definitely like more in the stock cars."
While driving for Lewis in 2000, Kahne won the USAC Midget championship and also was the USAC Silver Bullet Series Rookie of the Year that same season. In 2001, he added competition in the Toyota Atlantic and Formula Ford 2000 series, all as a prelude to jumping to the Busch Series in 2002 (ran a partial schedule and finished 33rd with Robert Yates Racing). Kahne moved to Akins Motorsports last season and substantially opened the eyes of many people with one win, four top-five and 14 top-10 finishes, and he finished seventh in the final standings.
One of those pairs of eyes that were opened widely belonged to Cup team owner Ray Evernham, who managed to pry the promising young talent away from Ford's grasp.
Evernham had a lot riding on and a lot of faith in Kahne; if he hadn't, he wouldn't have made him the handpicked heir apparent to replace legendary driver Bill Elliott as Elliott began his foray into semi-retirement this season.
And given the performance he's displayed thus far, Kahne has paid more immediate dividends than any other rookie, and could potentially make this season's Rookie of the Year battle a runaway if he keeps things up.
"I came into this having a huge seat to fill," Kahne acknowledged. "I was going to do whatever I could to not make mistakes and do everything I could right. Everything that Ray Evernham has asked me to do on and off the track, I've tried to do to keep everything flowing.
"So far, it's been great. I got all that going on. I know it can turn bad at any time. I've had a lot of good things happen in racing, but I've also had a lot of bad things. I've learned a lot. My first year in Busch, I think I did everything wrong you can do in a Busch car and get away with it or not get away with it. We don't have to go through a learning curve like that here."
While finishing runner-up may be second-best, it's good enough for Kahne right now. He's not going to get greedy and dwell on the fact that he was just one position away from Victory Lane each of the last two Cup races.
"To run second in these races is fine with me right now," Kahne said. "We want to win, and we're going to win sometime. Today it's a lot easier to run second to Matt (race winner Matt Kenseth) when he was half a straightaway ahead instead of a couple of feet. I'm fine with running second right now."
And then, a few seconds later after he had finished talking with a crowd of reporters, Kahne in a more private setting added a disclaimer that should have his fellow rookies, not to mention veteran Cup drivers, know without a doubt that this kid is for real, he's genuine and he's going to be around for a long time.
"The wins will come soon enough," he said with a broad smile on his face and a gleam in his eye.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.