With win, Kahne grows up


FORT WORTH, Texas -- Kasey Kahne, who turns 26 today, has teetered on the brink of NASCAR stardom for two years. Yesterday might have marked his breakthrough.

Kahne out-dueled one of his mentors, Tony Stewart, to take the lead with 27 laps left in the Samsung/Radio Shack 500. After that he was never challenged and sprinted away to a whopping 5.2-second margin of victory over Matt Kenseth at Texas Motor Speedway.

It was Kahne's second win in the past four races. The other was three weeks ago at another 1.5-mile track, Atlanta Motor Speedway. Superiority on such "intermediate" tracks, which dominate the Nextel Cup tour, often is a bellwether for racking up big numbers of wins and challenging for championships.

"I feel like I'm doing the best driving I've ever done," Kahne said, "and I'm with a race team that's giving me the best cars I could possibly drive. Maybe it's just all coming together at the same time."

"He's very committed; he's extremely talented," said his team owner, Ray Evernham, who as a crew chief in the 1990s launched Jeff Gordon to stardom. "If we can keep him in the cars, I believe he can race with anybody out there."

Kahne showed that against Stewart, the reigning Nextel Cup champion, who at 34 is at the top of his game.

Stewart appeared in command of the race and on his way to a second straight win on the Nextel Cup tour until Kahne drove alongside him with 32 laps to go and engaged him in nearly six laps of a side-by-side duel.

From there, Kahne's Dodge proved superior to both Stewart's Chevrolet and Kenseth's Ford.

This was nothing Stewart hadn't been expecting from his protege for years.

"You didn't have to look far to know it was just a matter of time before he hit his stride," Stewart said.

Said Kahne: "Tony was a little faster the first 20 or 25 laps of that run. Then we got equal and started reeling him in - and just got battling with him. ... It was a good battle, a hard battle. He was doing all he could to hold us off, but at that point my car was turning better.

"I just waited until I got the opportunity and was able to set him up and make the pass," Kahne continued.

"It was fun racing like that," Stewart said. "If there'd been 80 laps to go, neither one of us would have raced each other that hard. But with 30 laps to go, you're going to race each other that hard for sure, knowing you're getting down to the end."

One more caution flag allowed the leaders to make their final pit stops under yellow, and Kahne's crew got him out ahead of Stewart.

On the restart, Kahne had to work past the lapped car of Robby Gordon, but after he did, he simply drove away from Stewart, and Kenseth came up to take second.

"We were extremely loose there at the end," Stewart said, "but even if we were balanced, I don't think we could have caught Kasey. I think he upped the ante to a whole other level there at the end."

In the process, Kahne put a dent in a longstanding NASCAR tenet. For years, winning the pole hadn't been much of an indicator of who would win the race.

But this was Kahne's second straight win from the pole. He'd done the same at Atlanta. And in fact his only other career win, last May at Richmond, Va., also came from the pole.

"Maybe the team gets a little more excited and everyone focuses a little harder, and we're able to win on those occasions," Kahne said. "But I'm not sure why that is. I think we've just had some great luck when we've started on the pole."

And some great patience - which may be the key to Kahne's surge toward stardom.

"We started off really loose, and fell back to sixth or seventh," he said. "Last year I might have crashed it - who knows? But today I was able to stay calm enough to know that 500 miles is a long time, and we could make a lot of adjustments."

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.



Nextel Cup

Samsung/Radio Shack 500

At Fort Worth, Texas Lap length: 1.5 miles (Starting postion in parentheses)

1. (1) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 334, $530,164.

2. (6) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 334, $362,491.

3. (40) Tony Stewart, Chevy, 334, $286,386.

4. (8) Denny Hamlin, Chevy, 334, $208,500.

5. (24) Kevin Harvick, Chevy, 334, $204,511.

6. (21) Jeff Burton, Chevy, 334, $172,220.

7. (22) Scott Riggs, Dodge, 334, $133,850.

8. (9) Martin Truex Jr., Chevy, 334, $156,608.

9. (3) Mark Martin, Ford, 334, $151,850.

10. (10) Bobby Labonte, Dodge, 334, $164,211.

11. (16) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 334, $165,161.

12. (15) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy, 334, $154,816.

13. (13) Reed Sorenson, Dodge, 334, $126,675.

14. (20) Casey Mears, Dodge, 334, $150,233.

15. (26) Kyle Busch, Chevy, 334, $129,725.

16. (32) Ken Schrader, Ford, 334, $140,089.

17. (27) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 334, $143,350.

18. (4) Jeff Green, Chevy, 334, $133,833.

19. (12) Clint Bowyer, Chevy, 333, $116,075.

20. (29) Robby Gordon, Chevy, 333, $109,275.

21. (28) David Stremme, Dodge, 333, $127,033.

22. (11) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 332, $148,411.

23. (17) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, 332, $129,070.

24. (36) Tony Raines, Chevy, 332, $97,075.

25. (30) Terry Labonte, Chevy, 332, $95,975.

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