Kahne's harshest critic? Himself
Second five times as a rookie in 2004, Kahne admits the runner-up finishes were a mixed bag. By far the class of the rookie crop, Kahne's season was memorable but the question on everyone's mind now is, when will he get a victory?
Still, Kahne knows that second place truly isn't anything to get too upset about.
"I talk to myself a lot. I wasn't too happy about certain things, but I'm pretty happy about all our second-place finishes," Kahne said. "Some wins got taken away because of oil on the track or yellow flags or things like that, but that's nothing you can control.
"Those were disappointing, but what can you do? There's nothing you can do. I'm happy with the way the rest of the season went. I just hope we can dominate an entire race this season and not just seven-eighths of a race."
Oil on the track at Dover last June led to a wreck that ruined what appeared to be a victorious run, and an ill-timed caution dashed his chances at Texas.
Ray Evernham asked if coming close but not winning might somehow prove beneficial for Kahne's development. Evernham doesn't see it that way, though he knows there are ways in which the driver can improve during his second season.
"I feel bad for the kid. I think to let him have just one would have been nice," Evernham said with a smile. "Having that many seconds and that many top fives (13) -- that's kind of like torture. I think it would have still been a lesson if we could have got him just one (win)."
So, where can Kahne improve this season?
"I don't think he has to do anything different," Evernham said. "He has to concentrate on communicating what he needs in a car to go 500 miles and probably not run so hard early. I think that will take care of itself."
Then, sooner or later, the mixed emotions of second place can be pushed aside by the thrill of victory. Evernham turns the tables on himself when asked if he thinks the runner-up finishes were agonizing to Kahne.
|“||I've heard about the sophomore jinx a few times, but my rookie season wasn't as good as I thought it should have been. We had problems in my rookie season that I didn't think we should have had. Maybe we had our sophomore jinx in our rookie season. ”|
|— Rookie of the year Kasey Kahne on his prospects in '05|
"I was [in agony]," joked Evernham, who said he received plenty of good-natured kidding from those within the organization. "When we run second, I don't yell and scream and throw stop watches. I used to, but I don't anymore. When we win, I'll be happy. When we run second, I'm not happy. I hate to run second."
Part-time teammate Bill Elliott was certainly impressed by what Kahne accomplished in his first season driving Nextel Cup cars.
"The kid deserved it. He worked hard for it," Elliott said. "He did a fantastic job. He should have been in victory lane a couple of times, but we've all been down that road before. All in all, he's got a great future."
Kahne is also confident that he and crew chief Tommy Baldwin will start winning races this year. The two clicked quicker than anyone could have imagined and a year's experience working together can only be viewed as a positive for the team.
At this point, Kahne believes one win is all it will take to start the team on its way to being counted among the sport's elite.
"If we just keep putting ourselves in position and once we do it enough and we start getting the breaks and get a full race that goes our way, I think it's going to start happening more often," Kahne said. "Doing it that first time and breaking the ice is going to be the secret."
In other words, the Washington state native isn't worried about the so-called 'sophomore jinx.'
"I've heard about the sophomore jinx a few times, but my rookie season wasn't as good as I thought it should have been. We had problems in my rookie season that I didn't think we should have had," Kahne said. "Maybe we had our sophomore jinx in our rookie season. I think with everybody's commitment here, we're going to have a much better season in 2005."
Kahne says he needs to do a better job on the short tracks, road courses and the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega if he's to qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup this season after being in the thick of the battle for the 10th, and final, spot last September.
He knows expectations are much higher for him this year, but outsiders' expectations can't be any higher than his own, so that's not a concern. While Kahne wanted to finish in the top 15 in points and win Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors, he knows many figured he'd struggle.
So after a 13th-place finish in points secured the rookie crown, missing the top 10 this year would make for an unsuccessful season in his eyes. Part of the reason for the increased confidence is having the feeling that he's "been here before" entering this season.
"I feel like I know more about what I'm getting into - the tracks, the cars, what to look forward to, what to try to watch for," Kahne said. "I feel a lot better going into this year than I did last year. Last year I pretty much jumped into it. I'd never been in a Nextel Cup race and jumped right into it at Daytona. We had a pretty good season, but I feel like this year I just know a lot more about what I'm getting into and it should help each week.
"I definitely feel more comfortable. In the car I feel a ton more comfortable than I did the first half of last year. You learn and get better at things as you go along."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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