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Challenges contract, becomes an all-star

Rookie Kasey Kahne has proved he belongs in Nextel Cup series.

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Published May 23, 2004

CONCORD, N.C. - Kasey Kahne is an all-star in his first season in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series, although that says more about this quirky event than the rookie season he has had so far.

Kahne ran the NASCAR Nextel All-Star Challenge on Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway because he was able to get out of his contract with Ford after last season in the Busch series and signed a deal to drive a Dodge for Evernham Motorsports this season. Evernham had an automatic spot for the No. 9 car in the all-star race, no matter who was in the driver's seat. Quirky.

Still, Kahne has proved in the first three months in NASCAR's top series that he belongs in this race. Despite the early buzz surrounding other rookies such as Brian Vickers, Brendan Gaughan and Johnny Sauter, Kahne has emerged as the best newcomer this season. He nearly won at North Carolina Speedway in the second week of the season, finishing only one-hundredth of a second behind Matt Kenseth. A week later, the two repeated that finish, although Kenseth had a more comfortable margin of victory.

Kahne has three second-place finishes this season and is tied for fourth among all Cup drivers with four top-fives. He is 11th overall in the points race, battling for a top-10 spot and a berth in the 10-race runoff for the title at the end of the season.

Kahne is the only rookie in contention.

"Earlier in the season I was surprised that we did it, to start the season off so good and do it right at the start," Kahne, who has tailed off in recent races from that stunning start, said. "We have a good enough race team to do it a lot."

Kahne placed 16th of 22 cars Friday night in qualifying for the All-Star Challenge as a result of a penalty for speeding on pit road. Without the penalty, his car would have been among the leaders. That bodes well for the race, which has favored rookies in recent years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race in 2000, his rookie year. Ryan Newman did the same in 2002. Now both are among the elite drivers in the Nextel Cup. Kahne is expected to join that group soon.

"I think the potential is there," said Newman, who drove against Kahne in open-wheel racing early in their careers. "He's done a great job with what he has had to work with. He definitely stepped into a great ride."

Kahne, 24, was signed by Ford and was to be groomed for a Nextel Cup ride in the future. But the contract had an out if Ford could not match an offer to move up.

Then owner Ray Evernham stepped in and offered Kahne the car driven by Bill Elliott last season, when he won a race and finished ninth in the points championship. Elliott retired from full-time racing, leaving the ride open. Ford could not match the offer and Kahne bolted. Under NASCAR's rules, the car still qualified for the all-star event because of Elliott's performance a year ago, putting Kahne in the all-star race.

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