Racing Beat

Newcomer Kasey Kahne has a big job to do – fill the shoes of racing legend Bill Elliott and compete with seasoned racers like Dale Jarrett.

Rookie Kahne and veteran Jarrett both aiming for the top

They represent the old guard and the new guard of NASCAR Nextel Cup racing.

One is a fresh-faced up-and-comer who could pass for a high school kid. The other is
a seasoned veteran with lines on his face that reflect the grooves on the racetracks he has commandeered.

Kasey Kahne, 24, is the “kid” to 47-year old Dale Jarrett’s “old man.”

In Kahne’s rookie year he has been asked to fill the shoes of a legend. The former open wheel standout has replaced Bill Elliott as the point man for Ray Evernham’s Dodge effort, and the pilot of the No. 9 car quickly turned heads, scoring three second-place finishes in the first few events of the new campaign.

After four races, he was already fourth in Cup points, with a pole win.

“To run second for two consecutive races is a great accomplishment,” Kahne says. “There is no doubt I would’ve liked to have won, but I know we’ll be in Victory Lane eventually. I never expected this so soon.”

Kahne is also running in selected NASCAR Busch Series events and has a second place spot in the support series as well.

Race fans are impressed by Kahne’s showing so far. He has already demonstrated a driving style similar to that of Elliott.

“I came into it as having a huge seat to fill (in Elliott’s absence),” Kahne says. “I was going to do whatever I could to not make mistakes and do everything I could right.

Everything that Ray Evernham has asked me to do on and off the track, I’ve tried to do to keep everything flowing. We’ve been lucky enough to race good, too.”

In 2000, Kahne won the USAC Midget title and was Rookie of the Year in the USAC Silver Crown series. It appeared his future success would be in Indy-type cars, especially after advancing in Toyota Atlantic and Formula Ford competition.

But in 2002, he made the switch to the NASCAR Busch Series. A two-year stint in the nation’s No. 2 motorsports series was the perfect proving ground for advancement to the big leagues.

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“So far it’s been great,” Kahne says of this season. “I know it can turn bad at any time. I’ve had a lot of good things happen in racing, but I’ve also had a lot of bad things. I’ve learned a lot. My first year in Busch, I think I did everything wrong you can do in a Busch car and get away with it or not get away with it. We don’t have to go through a learning curve like that [with this team].”

Kahne is one of several NASCAR drivers who cut their teeth in the Open Wheel world. Others include Ryan Newman, Robby Gordon, Larry Foyt, Dave Blaney, John Andretti and Casey Mears, plus two former series champions – 2002 Cup champion Tony Stewart and four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon.

At the other end of the spectrum is Jarrett, son of Hall-of-Famer Ned Jarrett and a man who has been a staple of stock car racing for more than two decades. He hopes this season to re-establish himself as a contender.

In February, he won the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway and followed up with a solid 10th-place finish in the Daytona 500. And now that he’s in the middle of the points race, the driver of the Robert Yates Racing-sponsored Ford hopes to chase down young guns such as Kahne – especially on the superspeedways.

“I get excited thinking about [superspeedway] racing and this type of draft,” Jarrett says of the restrictor plate racing found at Daytona and Talladega. “I know that Dale Earnhardt always liked this, and he felt that he had an advantage because he knew he could outthink and outmaneuver a lot of people. I like to think I learned a lot from him in watching him and battling him here. Hopefully that will help us.

“Obviously you have to have a good enough car to draft with and to be near the front. You have to have a lot of patience, but more than anything else, you have to position yourself toward the end of the race. You can race there for 470 miles and it doesn’t really make any difference; it’s those last 30 miles – that’s when you have to get yourself in the right position.”

Jarrett’s “comeback” has been aided by teammate Elliott Sadler, who has already scored a victory in 2004.

“We’ve got some serious momentum from Daytona. Even though it was probably the most exhausting two weeks of all of our lives, it was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had in Daytona,” Sadler says. “Things are looking up. I’m hoping we stay the underdogs for a while so we continue to surprise everyone.”

Jarrett won his lone series title in 1999 and has since slipped down the leaderboard.

In 2000 he finished fourth, and over the next three seasons he was fifth, ninth and 26th, respectively.

He is ready to reverse that trend.

“You probably understand if you’ve been there before exactly what you can and can’t do. We still have to learn because the Fords are a little bit different now than what they were the last time we raced at Talladega and Daytona,” he says. “But it’s still basically the same deal. You have to be very patient and very calculating with the moves that you make because one wrong move sets you back, and it’s not as easy to move forward.”

As the season winds down, it’ll be interesting to compare the success of both Kahne and Jarrett, who promise to provide different styles in their quest for supremacy in NASCAR’s biggest league.

Stock car racing is a close-knit fraternity, and the sport lost one of its brothers in April when Ken Patterson passed away. Patterson, who had been diagnosed with a form of leukemia called myelo dysplasia syndrome just a few months earlier, died suddenly April 2. He was scheduled to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

Patterson was director of public relations at Talladega Superspeedway, but he also served as a troubleshooter for several different tracks under the International Speedway Corporation umbrella, including Daytona International Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway.

He was former sports editor of the Anniston Star, a newspaper near Talladega, and also worked at The Birmingham News.

He was only 38.

“We are very saddened by the passing of Ken Patterson,” says Grant Lynch, president of Talladega Superspeedway. “Ken was one of the most well respected individuals in our sport, and his dedication, enthusiasm and creativeness helped set him apart from others.”

“Ken was a major part of the Talladega Superspeedway family and one of the most compassionate people in the sport today,” says Rick Humphrey, vice-president/ general manager of Talladega Superspeedway. “He will forever be part of Talladega Superspeedway, and he will be missed tremendously.”

Patterson is survived by his wife Jenny, 4-year-old son Zachary and 4-month-old son Brady.
Patterson, who played baseball at LSU, will be sorely missed.

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