Six years ago, a blue eyed 24 year old from a small time in Washington burst onto the then NEXTEL Cup Series scene. The incoming Kasey Kahne had enormous shoes to fill—"Awesome" Bill Elliot was stepping out of his No. 9 Dodge, leaving the reins to the young driver.
Kahne got off to a rough start in his debut, finishing 41st due to an engine failure. However, in an event that would occur throughout his career, Kahne bounced back, finishing runner up in the next two events.
Despite not winning, Enumclaw, Washington's favorite son finished second five times, finished in the top 10 14 times, and ended the year 13th in points with Rookie of the Year honors.
His sophomore season came with hits and misses; he scored his first win 11 races into the season at Richmond International Raceway, where he led over half the laps.
"We waited longer than I would have thought to win," Kahne said after the race.
"We started out last year good and had a lot of seconds and thirds and ran up front. We thought we could win races, but we weren't able to do it. We had to wait a long time, but at least we finally won one and hopefully we'll get more now. I was nervous on those last restarts."
However, nine DNFs adding to his 18 finishes off the lead lap saw Kahne finish 10 spots lower in points than his previous season.
Off the track, Kahne's popularity was skyrocketing. He was named one of People Magazine's 50 Hottest Bachelors.
"I never knew so many people read that magazine! Since it came out [last June], I get recognized a ton more. I was in Washington, D.C. walking to a restaurant by myself, when a woman pulls up in her car and yells, 'Good job at Richmond!'"
Kahne's third full season in Cup would see him find success he hasn't found since. He won a resounding six races—Atlanta, Fort Worth, Michigan, Fontana and swept both events at Charlotte—finished in the top 10 19 times, and led over 700 laps. The season would also see Kahne finish the highest in points of his career, eighth.
The next two years, 2007 and 2008, saw Kahne fail to qualify for the Chase both years, winning just two races and collecting ten DNFs.
"I've been here before, and I'll probably be here again," he said. "That's the way it goes."
It was also a transition period, with Ray Evernham slowly backing away from the sport while new owner began George Gillett taking over majority control.
Which brings us to this year, where once again Kahne found himself adjusting to a new merger—this time with The King Richard Petty at the helm of the new Richard Petty Motorsports. He and teammate Elliot Sadler joined Reed Sorenson and A.J. Allmendinger.
Kahne once again had a rough Daytona; while his teammates finished in the top ten, he finished 29th. In the first 15 races, his average finish was 16.8, and had just four top 10 finishes.
Then came Sonoma.
He led twice on the day including the last 33 laps—33 laps that would include four cautions, and four restarts with Tony Stewart, who Kahne said was "as good as it gets out here."
But on that Sunday, Smoke wasn't as good as Kahne, who eventually pulled out to a substantial lead before winning the race.
"It feels great. I can't believe it," Kahne said.
The last time Petty had visited Victory Lane, it was 10 years earlier—when a 19 year old Kahne was paving his way in the World of Outlaws.
Now, Kahne's season has turned around for the better. His average finish since the win is ninth, and he's currently eighth in points standings—staying in the top 12 will qualify the now 29 year old for the Chase for the first time since 2006, and only the second time in his career.
Heading into the Brickyard this weekend, Kahne has an average finish of 17th, and one DNF. However, he also has three top 10s and has yet to start worse than 12th.
Thanks to the Enumclaw Courier-Herald, Sports Illustrated, Scene Daily, ESPN and Racing Reference for the information and quotes used in this article. For more information on Kasey Kahne, you can check out his web site.
This article also appears on FanZone Sports.