Kahne no one-hit wonder

Updated: June 4, 2004, 6:30 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Ryan Newman
Newman
It's hard not to feel for Kasey Kahne.

It's tough enough he's had to endure the pressure of replacing a living legend, the now semi-retired Bill Elliott, behind the wheel of the No. 9 Dodge Intrepid.

Then, because of Kahne's success thus far this season -- including runner-up finishes at Rockingham, Las Vegas and Texas, as well as a third-place showing at Atlanta -- comparisons between Kahne and Jeff Gordon's early years slowly began, reaching a crescendo last week before the Coca-Cola 600.

As if that wasn't enough, Kahne made a spectacular run through the field late in the 600, making many wonder if the young rookie was going to steal the victory away from eventual winner Jimmie Johnson.

But Johnson rallied (including a great pass between Kahne and Robby Gordon), Kahne scraped the wall, knocking the handling in his car out of whack, and what looked so promising wound up being a disappointing 12th-place showing.

Yet when Kahne was making his move toward the front of the pack, we saw the same kind of excited buzz in the stands that we've seen several times already this year, particularly at the four tracks where he had either a top-two or top-three finish.

So when is Kahne finally going to win a race and get rid of the pressure that goes with everyone asking that same question over and over?

Honestly, while many would like to see Kahne earn his first checkered flag in Nextel Cup competition, what's the hurry? In just 12 races, he has shown more guts, maturity and intelligence than we've seen in a long time from a comparable rookie driver. Rest assured, once this kid from Washington state wins his first race, many victories are going to follow relatively closely afterward -- he has that kind of talent and potential.

And, forget comparisons to Jeff Gordon. NASCAR 12 years ago, when Gordon made his debut upon the Cup scene, was a whole different entity than it is today.

If forced to compare Kahne to any other young driver, there's certainly a number of former rookies to choose from, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray.

But I'd have to pick Ryan Newman as the kind of fellow young gun that Kahne is most similar to. Both are almost painfully quiet, let their driving ability speak for them, are methodical and almost fastidious about studying not only each track they run on but their car and their competitors' history on those same tracks as well, and have the kind of maturity level that would be more akin to seasoned veterans who are 15 years older.

Kahne also has proved something else to a lot of people: He seems to do his best driving on medium-length racetracks. If a track is between a mile and a mile and a half, Kahne tends to excel more than he does on short tracks like Bristol or long tracks like Talladega and Daytona.

Don't believe it? Examine where has he had his best finishes to date: Rockingham (1-mile), Las Vegas (1.5-mile) and Texas (1.5-mile). And he arguably could have added to that at Lowe's Motor Speedway (1.5-mile) if that ding off the wall hadn't screwed up his car's setup in the closing laps.

Kahne is currently in 11th place in the standings -- although he's been as high as fourth (after Atlanta) and as low as 41st (when his engine tanked after just 42 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500). But he comes into Sunday's MBNA 400 "A Salute to Heroes" at Dover, Del., with a chance to shake off the late fade at Charlotte and get back into the top-10. Kahne is just 78 points behind 10th-place sitter Harvick, 80 points behind Newman and 101 points behind eighth-ranked Kurt Busch.

Unless Kahne goes into a huge slump, right now he's the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors. And he looks like a true star in the making.

Team owner Ray Evernham said during the annual NASCAR media preseason tour back in January that he had high hopes for his new young driver.

"He's going to surprise a lot of people in his first year, I can guarantee that," Evernham said in what has become a prophetic prediction.

It's not so much a matter of when his first win will come. It's more a matter of how many checkered flags we'll see the driver of the No. 9 Dodge collect in, say, the next 20 years.

Sure, Kahne belies his youthfulness at times when he still smiles modestly and even blushes sometimes when reporters gush at the accomplishments he's achieved thus far. But he also has a right to smile and be proud, because he's quickly proven he's not a flash in the pan or a one-hit wonder. No, Kahne has already proved he belongs among stock car racing's elite class.

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.

ALSO SEE