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The freshest face in Nextel Cup belongs to 2004 Rookie of the Year Kasey Kahne, but don't let those apple cheeks fool you--the 24-year-old driver has everything it takes to win

There they go, racing at full throttle up a muddy back road in the foothills of Mount Rainier. Kasey Kahne and his younger brother, Kale, are side-by-side on four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles, bouncing up and down at 25 mph, jaws clenched, knuckles white. It's a frosty winter morning, and the brothers are roaring toward an imaginary finish line at the 1,000-foot crown of Mount Peak, the base of which sits 500 yards from the Kahnes' family home outside Enumclaw, Wash. Hurtling around a bend on the rocky road, 24-year-old Kasey, the most promising NASCAR driver of his generation, makes a move that fans will see often in 2005: He seizes the lead.

As Kelly Kahne watches his sons zip through mountain air scented with pine needles, he smiles and shakes his head as if replaying in his mind a scene from the previous decade. "This is where Kasey first learned how to be a racer," he says. "Up on this mountain and down at our house, he learned how to maintain control of his vehicle even when he was sliding. I guess that's why he's got such good car control today."

Ah, yes, Kasey's car control. It's the reason many in NASCAR are hailing Kahne as the second coming of Jeff Gordon--and why he's a threat to win the Nextel Cup championship in just his second season on the circuit. He has the ability to keep control of his vehicle if it slides, spins or gets bumped sideways and can push the car to its limits (sometimes, beyond). In Kahne's hands the race car behaves almost as if it's a part of his body, and there's no gap in the pack that's too small for him to squeeze through. Without this skill, a driver will spend his career racing in the middle of the field.

Perhaps the best illustration of Kahne's car control came last March at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, in a race members of his crew still talk about. Kahne had a fast car--he led the first 11 laps--but midway through the race he cut a tire, throwing his number 9 Dodge into spin. Yet Kahne kept his car from smashing into the wall. Later in the race Kahne was bumped from behind by Tony Stewart. Again Kahne's car spun, and again Kahne kept it off the wall. Though he finished the race in 13th place, it may have been his most impressive performance of the season.

"Any athlete who is good at something has a different perception of time [than others do]," says Kahne's team owner, Ray Evernham, who was Gordon's crew chief when Gordon won the first three of his four points titles, in 1995, '97 and '98. "Kasey, like Jeff, has the ability to slow things down. He never gets behind the car; he's always ahead of it."

Standing amid the towering pines on Mount Peak, Kahne says, "I raced four-wheelers out here all the time when I was growing up, but I never imagined I'd be in this position now."

Heading into the 2004 Nextel Cup season, no one in the garage did either. Brian Vickers, the '03 Busch Series champion, was the overwhelming preseason favorite to become Rookie of the Year. Yet it was Kahne who won that title, by the largest margin in the 47-year history of the award (120 points over Brendan Gaughan in the rookie standings). Kahne started fast and made it into the Cup top 10 six times before finishing 13th. More impressive, he had a series-high five second-place finishes. (Vickers wound up third in the rookie standings and 25th overall.) In all, Kahne had chances to take the checkered flag in about a dozen races, but some bad luck--running out of gas in one race, getting caught up in accidents in four others--kept him out of Victory Lane. That drought could end as soon as this Sunday at the Daytona 500.

Says former Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, now a Fox Sports commentator. "I remember in 1993 when Gordon was a rookie. He was always fast, but it seemed he crashed every race. Jeff got better with experience. Kasey is the same way--he's incredibly fast, and he's fearless. Now that he has a year of Cup racing under his belt, I expect him to be very, very successful this season."

like most drivers who reach the Cup circuit, Kahne started racing as a boy. His father built a one-eighth-mile dirt oval with banked turns on his 50-acre property, and by the time Kasey was eight, he was racing his friends in four-wheelers. The on-track action was often wheel-to-wheel, and young Kasey quickly became proficient in racing's most fundamental art: setting up another driver and making a pass in the corner. "We'd slide all around the track," recalls Kasey. "Then in the winter we'd pour water on our circle driveway so that it would freeze, and we'd race on the ice. It was a great learning experience."

Kasey also learned plenty from his father, who owned a logging company and raced on the weekends. On many Friday nights Kasey, Kale and their sister, Shanon, two years Kasey's elder, traveled with their dad 300 miles roundtrip to Deming (Wash.) Speedway, where Kelly would race mini sprint cars. Then on Saturday nights the Kahnes would drive 110 miles to Skagit (Wash.) Speedway for another race. Kasey and Kale were always sticking their noses under the hood and helping their father prepare the car. "The boys were great listeners," says Kelly, who is retired from logging and racing and divorced from the children's mother, Tammy. "Driving to and from the tracks, we'd constantly talk about racing and what makes a good car. They couldn't get enough."

At 12 Kasey followed his dad onto the sprint tracks. It was immediately apparent that he had an instinctive feel for the car, even when simply driving at 10 mph around the family driveway. "Just by doing that, Kasey would know if the car was good or not," says Kelly. "He was always right. Always. I couldn't do that, and I'd been racing all my life."

In January 1999, Kasey and Shanon packed up the family truck, put the family's sprint car in a hauler and moved to Indianapolis, the open-wheel capital of the U.S. With his dad underwriting his expenses and Shanon handling the logistics and acting as her brother's p.r. agent, Kasey raced his sprint car three to four times a week at tracks in the Midwest, hoping to catch the attention of a deep-pocketed team owner. Though he was fast from the start and won several races, his hard-charging style led to all-or-nothing results. One autumn night in '99, during one of Kasey's regular calls home after races, Kelly told his son that he was thinking of pulling the plug on Kasey's racing dream. "At that point Kasey had wrecked six cars," Kelly recalls. "I had spent about $750,000, and the money was running out. I said, 'The next car you wreck will be your last. You'll be coming home.'"

But a month later Kasey got his big break: Open-wheel owner Steve Lewis, whose roster of drivers on their way up has included Gordon, Stewart and Ryan Newman, offered Kahne rides in the USAC Sprint, Midget and Silver Crown Series. Driving for Lewis, Kahne won the 2000 Midget championship and finished 10th in the Silver Crown points standings, earning rookie-of-the-year honors. He also won the 500 Classic at Indianapolis Raceway Park in '00 and '01, becoming the first driver to take back-to-back victories in the annual event since Jeff Gordon in 1989 and '90.

With his career on the rise, Kahne got an offer to drive for Robert Yates Racing in the 2002 Busch Series. But he struggled in NASCAR's version of Triple A baseball; in 20 starts that year his average finish was 22.8. In 34 starts in 2003 his average finish rose to only 15.1. But Evernham, who needed a Nextel driver to replace the retiring Bill Elliott in his number 9 Dodge in '04, was intrigued by Kahne.

In the fall of 2000 Evernham had been introduced to Kahne by John Bickford, who is Gordon's stepfather and a noted racing talent scout, and Bickford had raved about Kahne's skills. After Evernham had seen Kahne race a few times, he too saw the similarities between Kahne and Gordon. "Kasey is a lot like Jeff in that he's smart, articulate and can communicate what's going on with the car," says Evernham. "Even though Kasey struggled in the Busch Series, I wasn't too concerned because a lot of open-wheel guys don't do well in Busch. Kasey grew up driving cars that are overpowered and slide around. Busch cars aren't that way. They have a hundred less horsepower than Cup cars. I really believed that Kasey would do better in Cup than in Busch."

Evernham was right. After blowing an engine and finishing 41st in the Daytona 500 last year, Kahne raced to a second-place finish the next week at Rockingham, followed by another runner-up spot at Las Vegas and a third at Atlanta. It was one of the best starts by a rookie in the 55-year history of NASCAR. Says Tommy Baldwin, Kahne's veteran crew chief, "Because Kasey is so fast, when our car's setup is close to perfect, we're usually faster than the field. The bottom line with Kasey is, I have a lot bigger window to work with in going faster than I've ever had before."

Kahne's quick start in '04 made him an instant fan favorite. Six weeks after his souvenir trailer sold $6,000 worth of merchandise at Daytona, his sales at Texas Motor Speedway surpassed $100,000. By season's end only Dale Earnhardt Jr. was selling more personalized merchandise than Kahne, whose hottest-selling item was the women's tank top. Yes, Kahne's rise in popularity has been driven largely by female race fans. Unlike the other major sports in America, which attract an overwhelmingly male audience, NASCAR'S fan base of 75 million is about 40% female. And no other driver in NASCAR, not even Little E, makes the ladies weaker in the knees than Kahne, with his boyish face and apple cheeks. Walk through any infield with Kahne, and you'll see women of all ages run up to him and pass along their cell number or have him sign body parts (in some cases, R-rated ones).

"It's scary at times at how out of control this whole thing has gotten," says Kahne, who last June was named by PEOPLE magazine one of the 50 hottest bachelors of 2004. "I mean, scary. I really need to find a girlfriend."

up on Mount Peak, Kahne and his brother tear into the sparkling Pacific Northwest morning. They bolt down a muddy road, and minutes later come buzzing back up, racing to the summit. It's not even close: Kasey reaches the top of the mountain well ahead. "Dude, can't you go any faster than that?" Kasey says to Kale at the finish line, laughing. "Really, how fast can you go? How fast?"

Funny, beginning this weekend, those are the questions that everyone in NASCAR will be asking Kasey. How fast?



Photograph by Joe Robbins


  Named one of PEOPLE's hottest bachelors, Kahne (opposite, and above left, with Kale) has quickly become a fan favorite.  



  [See caption above.]




  Kahne had five runner-up finishes in 2004, more than any other driver.