Kasey Kahne has grown accustomed to following tough acts.
In 2004 he took over the familiar No. 9 Dodge from legendary driver Bill Elliott. And in 2007, the then-27-year-old with the boyish good looks replaced rough-and-tumble Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Budweiser's national pitchman for the NASCAR crowd.
Now Kahne would like to become a consistently tough act himself.
The farm kid from Washington state certainly has had his moments during a six-year career — six Sprint Cup victories in 2006, nine wins overall and a triumph at last year's Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, N.C.
Kahne (pronounced Kane) returns today to Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he won the Sprint Cup All-Star Challenge in May 2008 and followed a week later with his second Coca-Cola 600 win to go with the 2006 victory (he also won the fall race there in 2006). It helped salvage an otherwise disappointing season as he finished the year ranked 14th at the wheel of his cherry red Charger.
The stakes are not all that different for Kahne now. He comes into the 600 looking for his first win of the year, further back in the standings at 16th and hoping for a good result to jump-start his season after a disappointing 14th-place finish last weekend in the All-Star Race.
"We've always had a lot of success at Charlotte," he said recently by phone. "And to do what we did last year after we were kind of struggling up to that point, I think it's a great spot to turn around our season again. I'm definitely looking forward to it."
Kahne, who races for Richard Petty Motorsports, stayed in the top four through most of last year's race, then got a gift at the end when Tony Stewart's car blew a tire.
"I was leading when I pitted, but he needed less fuel when he pitted and came out in front of me by three seconds," Kahne recalled. "I was thinking, 'Well, we'll just finish second, that's all we can do,' but then he had his problem, and I was like, 'Holy smokes!' It was a gimme."
For Kahne, the name of the game now is consistency, but he says that has more to do with his equipment than anything else. In fact, his car has been equipped with a new engine; he hopes that will fuel a strong finish in '09.
"It's to the point where I feel like I can be as consistent as I want to be (as a driver) — we just need to improve in other areas, whether it's my feedback, or preparing the cars and the engines, that kind of thing needs to get better," he said. "If we have the right car, we're going to be consistent, I can promise you that."
Life in the middle of the pack, when his six-win campaign of '06 suggested he was making his move, has been frustrating. It hasn't helped that Kahne has worked for an organization that has changed leadership from Ray Evernham to Gillett-Evernham, then to Richard Petty Motorsports after a merger.
"I was thinking about this the other day: I've been in Cup since 2004, and if you look at what I've gone through as far as ownership, manufacturing changes of the vehicle, the engine changes, the personnel, sometimes it's overwhelming," he said. "You just have to be flexible and adapt to change."
Kahne says Dodge's corporate commitment has remained strong despite tough economic times, and he believes he has benefited from his association with Richard Petty Motorsports.
"I think the direction is great, though sometimes I think it's taking us longer than it should," he said. "And working with Richard and listening to him, you can learn a lot from the guy."
Kahne learned from another NASCAR great, Elliott.
"It was a great opportunity for me to be around Bill," Kahne said. "He was the one who told me that I was ready for Cup. I was like, 'Man, I don't know if I'm ready; I've only won one or two Busch (series) races.' He was like, 'No, you're fine, you're ready. I'm going to do what I can to help.' He was a great mentor to me my first year."
Even without steady success, Kahne's face is becoming well-known — from Budweiser ads on TV to life-sized store cutouts. He's diversifying, with last week's grand opening of his own sprint car shop in North Carolina.
And he has developed a legion of loyal fans. His popularity was underscored recently when fans voted his 2008 All-Star victory as the greatest Lowe's Motor Speedway moment ever.
"I enjoy the fan reaction, and it's kind of hard to believe at times," he said. "Because I feel like where I'm at in racing compared to Kyle Busch; the guy just wins so much. We have so many fans, but I haven't won nearly as much as I feel like I should have, or that I need to."
Kahne hopes that starts to change today.
Sprint Cup point standings
Through 11 of 36 races. The top 12 drivers through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.
Jeff Gordon 1,601—
Tony Stewart 1,572 29
Kurt Busch 1,546 55
Jimmie Johnson 1,465 136
Denny Hamlin 1,445 156
Jeff Burton 1,384 217
Kyle Busch 1,380 221
Ryan Newman 1,363 238
Greg Biffle 1,345 256
Matt Kenseth 1,326 275
Mark Martin 1,316 285
Carl Edwards 1,271 330