Load Off

Now that the monkey is finally off his back, Kasey Kahne can go about his business as a budding NASCAR superstar, free of that immense weight he’s been carrying around for more than a year.

Kahne put it all together last Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, leading 242 of the 400 laps and holding off two of the best in the business to get to Victory Lane in just his 47th start.

For those of you with an open-wheel bent, it was curious to see the top three finishers—Kahne, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman—all called USAC home before making the transition to stock cars. It looked more like the feature finish at Angell Park or Winchester than the top three in a NASCAR race.

As one who has seen all three drivers sans fenders, it was a kick to see them dicing in and out of traffic with the same sort of abandon they showed at the wheel of a midget or sprint car. Slide jobs are the open-wheel equivalent of the bumper nudge, and there were even a few of those out there among them on Saturday.

Perhaps what was coolest about the race at Richmond was the fact that all three remembered where they came from, and all three paid homage to the open-wheel training that made them targets of NASCAR owners in the first place.

Stewart, as close to the open-wheel scene as he’s ever been—he owns Eldora Speedway, after all—was all smiles after the race despite finishing second. He led 143 laps and was just a tick away from the lead with five to go before Kahne slithered away.

If you know Stewart at all, you know that when he’s locked down in a battle for position at the front of the field, that’s about the most fun he can have. He had that Saturday night. Newman and Kahne are drivers he’s raced against for a lot of years, and the trust among them was evident in the early stages.

Stewart said the three of them were dueling among each other, but they were also watching out to make sure none of them got into trouble. It was like racing go-karts with your friends—you want to win, but you want the other guys to keep racing to the end, or else it’s no fun.

Stewart and Newman are from Indiana. So am I. Kahne is from Washington, but he is no stranger to methanol, and that gains him admission to the club. With everything these days so skewed toward NASCAR, it was nice to see a bunch of guys who started racing without sissy fenders beat the stuffing out of those who will never know what it’s like to race wheel-to-by-God-wheel, not fender to fender.

What was also nice to see was Stewart’s reaction to Kahne’s victory lap. Watching from pit lane, Stewart quipped, “they’d better black flag him, or else he’ll be out there until he runs it out of gas.” When Kahne brought his car to pit road, Stewart broke away from the assembled media to shake Kahne’s hand and chat for a moment. It was hard to tell who was happier, Kahne or Stewart.

As much as many of us bemoan the loss of status of open-wheel racing in general since NASCAR became the marketing colossus it is now, there’s still a ray of sunshine on nights like that one at Richmond.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2005

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