Smooth rookie covets victory

Updated: May 13, 2004, 12:37 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Rookie driver. Brand new racing surface. The kind of three-quarter-mile short track that plays to his strength as a race car driver.

Add in a series-best-tying three poles and four top-5 finishes, including runner-up at Rockingham, Las Vegas and Texas.

Could all those elements equal a first Nextel Cup win for Kasey Kahne in Saturday night's Pontiac Performance 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway?

The driver of the No. 9 Dodge Intrepid sure hopes so. He's had such success already this year that the one thing that has eluded him, a win, is becoming a heavier albatross around his neck from race to race.

He'd love to cut that albatross loose on Saturday night.

"I'm excited to go to Richmond," Kahne said. "We (went up there last week) to test the Busch car and try to figure out the new surface. They repaved it. It's a tough little track, but it's a lot of fun to race on and I've always liked Richmond. With the new surface it should have a lot of grip, and it should be really fast. (Crew chief) Tommy Baldwin has a pretty good record at Richmond. Hopefully I can learn some things from him and have a good race there."

Kasey Kahne

After two runner-up and one third-place finish in his first four starts this season, Kahne has stumbled a bit in his last six outings. Call it a mini-slump, but he has managed only one other top-10 finish -- finishing second at Texas -- in that half-dozen race stretch.

Along the way, he also has had a 40th-place finish at Bristol (because of a crash), a 21st-place finish at Martinsville, a 30th-place showing at Talladega and a rebound to 13th in the last race two weeks ago at California after starting from the pole.

"I think I've probably had a few of those weeks when things happen and you get away from them later on," Kahne said. "It's just part of racing. Things happen sometimes that you don't want them to, or maybe you do, but everybody looks at it in different ways, it seems. I don't think anybody is after anybody or anything like that. Things happen, and that's why racing is so much fun."

To say Kahne is due for another strong finish is an understatement. And you can't get much stronger than a first career Cup win, something Kahne clearly covets.

"After Texas, I was definitely wondering how we were going to win a race," Kahne said. "It is a little bit frustrating. We're still getting good finishes, and (at California) we would've probably had another top-five if we hadn't run out of gas. I'm pretty happy with the way everything is going. I'm actually really happy with it. If we keep running up front, we'll get some victories."

At the same time he's trying to do his best in the Nextel Cup Series (he's in 11th place, the only rookie in the top 20, and just 107 points out of the top five), Kahne also is trying to maintain a full schedule in the Busch series. On one hand, it is a tiring route to race both Saturday and Sunday. On the other hand, Kahne is able to use much of what he learns in Busch races and apply it to the following day's Cup event.

"I just know where the track's at when the race goes green on Sunday," Kahne said. "I know what you can't and can do already, where the lines are, how the track's changed from the day before. I think it definitely helps, and it definitely helped me being a rookie this season.

"I think I do feel a little overwhelmed with it sometimes with all the directions they pull you during the week. Other than that, at the racetrack I think I'm getting that down. As soon as Busch practice is over, you've got to run to your Cup car and pretty much back and forth all day until Sunday. I'm pretty much getting that stuff down."

Kasey Kahne
Getty ImagesKahne hopes to land his first Cup victory on Saturday at Richmond.

One other thing that Kahne has quickly adapted to is being patient, which isn't the easiest thing for a rookie driver to do. Invariably, rookies get overly excited, trying to accomplish too much too quickly.

But not Kahne. He has a maturity and patience that make him look more like a veteran Cup driver each race.

"I'm probably a little smoother going to the front and aggressive when I need to be and maybe not quite as much sometimes to make sure nothing happens and to keep all the fenders on," he said. "If you have 200 laps to get back to the front you don't have to do it in five laps. You can take your time. I think I understand a lot of the long race situations when you get to Nextel Cup."

Crew chief Tommy Baldwin knows he has more than just a typical rookie in Kahne. Given the success the young driver has had thus far, and the comparisons between Kahne and drivers such as Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Baldwin knows he's leading the career of someone very special.

"He's very educated for the amount of experience he has," Baldwin said. "A lot of it is the natural ability you're born with, I believe. He has that. Racing is in his blood. That's all he really wants to do, and that's how he attacks every weekend. He's like a sponge right now. He's soaking it all in. He's learning all the trades inside and out, what we need to accomplish every weekend. He's doing real well with all that stuff."

So well, in fact, that Baldwin is not ruling out his young charge as a legitimate championship contender, even if he is a rookie.

"If we get in the top 10 or within 400 points of the leader by the cutoff point (after the 26th race), yeah, I think we're definitely going to take a good look at trying to win the championship," Baldwin said. "Right now, we're race to race. We're doing what we can to try to win each race. If you do as good as you can, that's all you can ask for.

"We're working real hard here. We're reaching a lot of goals we set out to achieve the whole year. We've already achieved a lot of them, so winning the championship is definitely a pretty good goal. I see a smart, young kid that can get the job done right now."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.