The Frontstretch: Kahne is Finally Able: Following in Elliott's Footsteps (Bowles-Eye View) by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday May 17, 2005

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For those who don’t believe history repeats itself, consider this…

Back in November 1983, a young red-haired kid finally broke an endless streak of 8 second-place finishes in 115 starts by getting his first Winston Cup win at the season finale in Riverside, CA. This 27-year-old “young gun” had to hold off some of the bet drivers in Cup racing at the time, as Benny Parsons, Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond, and Darrell Waltrip all took turns at the front of the pack that day. But when it counted, the redhead from Dawsonville, GA put the #9 Melling car up front in the last five laps, taking the checkered flag in his 51st race with the team. The victory lane celebration was subdued, as this soft-spoken driver was shy in front of the media, but the sweet taste of success lingered on for weeks. Who’s the driver, you ask? Simple answer: Bill Elliott.

Fast forward to 2005. Another soft-spoken kid, this time from the Great Northwest, finally ends his streak of 6 second-place finishes, grabbing his first win at NASCAR’s other “R” racetrack, Richmond, VA. Driving the #9 Ray Evernham Dodge, the 25-year-old driver holds off one of NASCAR’s most aggressive veterans, Tony Stewart, easily the “Tim Richmond” of the 21st century. In his 47th start with his team, the driver receives one of the biggest boosts of momentum in his entire career, yet delivers one of the most subdued victory lane celebrations for a first-time winner, due to his quiet personality. Who’s the driver, you ask? This time you know, unless you’ve been in another time zone for the past 72 hours: Kasey Kahne.

The comparison is eerily similar. It really makes you understand how much Bill Elliott may have a hand in mentoring his replacement in the #9 car behind the scenes, as the way in which Kahne has handled both his career and his driving style has paralleled Elliott’s. Dig deeper into it, and you’ll notice even more similarities. Both of them grabbed their first win on types of tracks that typically are never their strongest (Elliott: road course, Kahne: short track). For both drivers, the outcome was in doubt until the last few laps of the race: Elliott only led 5 laps the entire day at Riverside, and Kahne had Tony Stewart on the outside of him with just seven laps remaining in the race at Richmond.

But the most important thing to note off of Elliott’s first victory is something we can’t yet compare with Kahne, and that’s what happened after the win. For Elliott, he had the entire offseason to enjoy his victory, and then entered 1984 on fire: he won his second race at Michigan in June, and followed that up with two more wins on his way to a third-place finish in the final standings. In fact, that started a five-year period where Elliott was never lower than 4th in the final points, capturing the Championship in 1988, while winning 11 times in 28 tries in 1985 and taking home the coveted Winston Million prize.

Whether Kahne will get on that type of hot streak is still uncertain. No one appeared to have as many problems with both the new handling package and the new Dodge Charger as Kahne, and several uncharacteristic crashes early on this year will attest to that. The win only brings him up to 15th in the point standings, and while there are still 15 races remaining until the Chase, Kahne has a long road to hoe in order to propel himself into the Nextel Cup Top 10.

But the bottom line is, Kahne’s win is immeasurable in terms of momentum. After a good rookie year that failed to be labeled great because of both a zero in the win column and a just-missed attempt at making the Chase, Kahne has now proved to himself that he can finish first at NASCAR’s highest level. Even if Kasey retired tomorrow, his name would appear in the Nextel Cup record books as long as the sport continued to exist. That takes away an enormous amount of pressure, replacing it instead with confidence and a newfound understanding of what one needs to do in order to take the checkered flag first.

The talent level is there, the support system is there, and Kahne’s mentor Elliott will remain at his side every step of the way. And as Saturday night showed us all, Kahne is able to remind us that’s there’s other teams out there this year capable of challenging Hendrick and Roush. That, in itself, is exciting.

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