By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The state of Washington has officially hit its lowest point in terms of NASCAR drivers from the Evergreen State.
It has been over 24 hours since Kasey Kahne’s stated his less ideal farewell from competitive stock car racing. The announcement was regarding Kahne not being medically cleared for the rest of the season due to extreme heat exhaustion, denying the 18-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner the opportunity to finish out his career on his own terms.
With that, it marks the true end of a otherwise nice little run of Washingtonians making an impact in NASCAR’s Premiere Series.
Before you ask about Derrike Cope. Yes, he’s still competing, but not only is he a part-time driver, the Spanaway native didn’t quite carry the torch compared to the Enumclaw native and Vancouver’s Greg Biffle?
Safe to say that outside of his 1990 Daytona 500 victory, a subsequent victory at Dover, and a pole at Charlotte in 1998, everything else wasn’t as memorable. At least Biffle and Kahne were able to produce tremendous campaigns across all three NASCAR’s national series.
Let’s start with Biffle. He was among a select few that has won a title in both the Truck Series (2000) and Xfinity Series (2002). His nine-win Truck season in 1999 remains the most ever by a driver in a single season, and he became the first Xfinity Series rookie to win five races back in 2001. That mark was tied by Kyle Busch three years later, and surpassed by Christopher Bell last Saturday at Dover.
Not only that, he scored 19 Cup wins and finished in the top-five points standings three times, with a runner-up effort in 2005 being his best.
Unfortunately, people view Biffle as just a punchline because of his birth year and personal scrutiny. Thus, his impact in NASCAR has been overshadowed since his last Cup start in the finale at Homestead in 2016.
This is where Kahne comes into the foray.
Compared to Biffle, who scored 55 victories across all three series to Kahne’s 32, he might’ve not been as stellar as the future Hall of Famer, but his role in the sport when it was a huge conglomerate can’t be ignored.
Kahne had a steep hill to climb, becoming Bill Elliott’s successor, and among a handful of drivers (Jason Leffler, Casey Mears, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, and J.J. Yeley) who transitioned from open wheels to stock cars. Not only that, he wasn’t the most promising young gun who made the move to Cup in 2004.
Although he had a solid 2003 Busch Series campaign, finishing seventh in points with a win at Homestead, the now 38-year-old had an abysmal season at Robert Yates Racing the year before, with only a single top-10 in 20 starts to his name.
Keep in mind, hyped drivers Brendan Gaughan, Scott Riggs, Johnny Sauter, Brian Vickers and Scott Wimmer had all declared to compete for Rookie of the Year honors.
Therefore, Kahne was far from the favorite of winning Rookie of the Year, but the question remained, how would he fare in the No. 9 Dodge owned by Ray Evernham?
It didn’t take him long to make a name for himself, as he came 0.010 seconds away from beating Matt Kenseth in the final race at North Carolina Speedway and he scored his first Cup win in just his second start. Instead, he would have to wait another 45 starts to finally score his maiden win at Richmond Raceway in 2005, winning it from the pole no less, and thus a star was on the rise.
In between that time period of finishing second at Rockingham to his first win, Kahne had five more runner-up finishes, five poles, and won Rookie of the Year honors, beating all of those guys. With the exception of Vickers, everyone else flopped tremendously in Cup and all made their full-time exit in under five years.
Perhaps Kahne’s biggest notoriety in his early days was his mass appeal, especially with the women. From countless cheesy Dodge commercials to making mainstream appearances, his clean cut image created a strong fan base. There were seasons where Kahne was second behind Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the Most Popular Driver category. Something that people have overlooked in recent memory, and he more than Biffle, was a household name in my home state.
During my education days, teachers would ask ‘how did Kahne do?’
I gladly responded to those questions, but the problem was that I’d give different answers. Some seasons, Kahne was a contender for victories like his peak in 2006, visiting victory lane six times, or top-10 campaigns in both 2009 and 2012, where in the latter, he finished a career-high fourth in points.
However, there are seasons like 2005, 2010 and 2017 that were hard to watch because of supbar results, and poor luck. This led NASCAR fans saying that Kahne’s only way of making the playoffs was winning at Atlanta on Labor Day Weekend or surviving chaos. His last two playoff berths in 2014 and 2017 were as such, scoring a vital win there and his final Cup win at Indianapolis was indeed a result of strategy and attrition.
Either way, when it came down to crunch time, Kahne struggled and also led fans to quickly labeling him as the weakest link, especially during his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports.
While it’s true, but compared to some drivers who were supposed to be NASCAR’s future, he wasn’t terrible. He definitely had longevity and kept himself more consistent than the rest of his 2004 rookie colleagues. I’d say he had a far better career than Vickers, who by the way, clinched the 2003 Xfinity Series championship at the same race Kahne scored his first series victory.
Like Vickers (blood clot) and Rick Mast (carbon monoxide poisoning), Kahne’s career abruptly due to ongoing health issues. Quite honestly, it’s a sad way to end a competent career that included 18 wins, an All-Star Race victory in 2008 after winning the fan vote, 27 poles and 176 top-10 finishes in 529 starts.
When it came to Trucks, Kahne was an absolute natural. In six starts, Kahne finished no worse than second at Pocono in 2010. The rest were wins, including his first two starts when he drove Jim Smith’s No. 2 ASE Dodge Ram in the final two races of 2004. If he never races in that series again, at least his last race at Charlotte in 2015 ended in epic fashion, eking out eventual series champion Erik Jones by 0.005 seconds.
Out of all of those accolades, the 1.5-mile circuits like Atlanta and Charlotte seemed to fit his driving style when the car favored him and seven victories came at those venues. His three triumphs in the Coca-Cola 600 should be considered his greatest feat because he’s just one of eight guys (six of which are NASCAR Hall of Famers) to have won at least three or more times at NASCAR’s longest race of the year. Not too shabby if you ask me.
Overall, his numbers were far from poor, and while they aren’t Hall of Fame worthy to most, he had a nice career. Had he had stronger luck on his side, his numbers would’ve been just as tremendous.
Kahne was a good versatile driver, and while he wasn’t Tony Stewart in terms of accomplishments, he adapted from sprint cars to stock cars better than others. It’s not an easy transition, and after his tenure at Yates in 2002, he exceeded expectations beyond belief and he’ll be missed in the NASCAR world.
Fortunately, Kahne is far from done driving behind the wheel as we’ll see him on the dirt tracks where health shouldn’t be an issue, and it’ll give him more time to become a family man. Who knows, he could have an even more spectacular racing career in World of Outlaws.
His race team is among the best with Daryn Pittman. This year’s Knoxville Nationals winner and former NASCAR driver Brad Sweet has represented him proudly over the years.
With this in mind, I’ll still keep an eye on Kahne’s post-NASCAR career because like his drivers in World of Outlaws have done for him, he has made my state proud with a nice NASCAR career.
Tuesday’s announcement truly marked the end of drivers from the Evergreen State competing in NASCAR’s highest level that have remained competitive for a large part of their careers.
What about Jesse Little, son of Spokane’s Chad Little, who may have a prominent shot in Cup?
Thing is, Jesse was born and raised in North Carolina, so I don’t count him as a driver who can represent Washington.
It may be a real long time until we may even see a driver from Washington reach Cup, as both Alan Kulwicki Driver Development Program drivers Molly Helmuth (Seattle) and Brittney Zamora (Kennewick), and Evergreen Speedway star Tyler Tanner (Auburn), are all currently competing in late models, with Zamora recently testing a Bill McAnally Racing’s K&N Pro Series West car at Irwindale over a week ago.
Time will truly tell if they’re either going to be like Biffle, Cope, and Kahne, setting the bar for the future of Northwest racing or guys like Tobey Butler (Kirkland), Kevin Hamlin (Snohomish) and Tayler Malsam (Seattle), who’ve reached a certain point, and faded away with minimal success.
Until the next true Washingtonian competes in the national level, Kahne’s impact in the sport should be revered because in a time when Pacific Northwest drivers had it tough in Cup, he was one of the only exceptions.