Kasey Kahne concedes now that he began suspecting something was up last week when he received strange text messages and conflicting answers to easy questions from his friends and longtime employees.
The 38-year-old did not expect, however, the full-on surprise reception those very friends and family organized last Thursday night to honor him for his 15 years in NASCAR and pay respect for his successful and celebrated racing history.
More than 200 people from all phases and places of Kahne’s racing career crowded into the BoatYard Eats facility in Cornelius, North Carolina, for a surprise “retirement” party. Former pre-NASCAR team owners like Steve Lewis, longtime sponsor representatives, current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers such as Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson, and past drivers Michael Waltrip and Regan Smith joined a room full of Kahne’s family and friends to recognize a triumphant career for the soft-spoken, shy wonder-talent from faraway Enumclaw, Washington.
“People weren’t there (at work) that day and were saying things to me and texting me and everything just seemed off,” Kahne told NASCAR.com this week. “I usually keep my days pretty normal, so I could tell something was going on. Up until then, I had no clue there was any type of party. I didn’t even think there needed to be one. I never thought of having a NASCAR retirement type party. It wasn’t on my radar at all.
“If it wasn’t a surprise, I would have said no. So it was really good.”
And so fitting.
Kahne’s career, though, always has exceeded “good.” His ascension and success in the NASCAR ranks was a hard-earned and unlikely path from someone of his racing background and West Coast small-town locale.
His was a family effort from the get-go. And continues to be today.
Kasey’s father, Kelly Kahne, built a dirt track on the family’s property in Enumclaw to first put Kahne in a race car as a child. His mother, Tammy, ran a fan shop out of the garage as Kahne’s popularity began to soar. His older sister, Shannon, moved with him to Indianapolis and then the East Coast to offer support in his earliest time on the national stage. Now she runs the hugely generous Kasey Kahne Foundation.
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Kahne’s younger brother, Kale, worked on his USAC teams and even served as a spotter early in Kasey’s NASCAR career. He and cousins Kole and Willie ran the family’s beloved sprint car team while Kasey focused on his NASCAR career.
“I feel so young and feel like I still want to race and do so many things,’’ Kahne said. “But I had 15 great years in NASCAR and learned so much and enjoyed it so much and won races. I just kind of want to move on and do something different for numerous reasons.
“To see what other people in the sport have written on social media has meant a ton to me. Also just to see all the people at the surprise party. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have known anyone in there but my family. But the other night we were all friends, good friends. … I sat there and watched some and think back – every single person is enjoying it as a group because really it is for all of us together.
“It really showed how much racing in NASCAR and sprint cars have brought such a large group together to be good friends.”
From his earliest green flags, Kahne proved to be a racing prodigy. He joined Jeff Gordon (1989-90) as the only drivers to ever win the prestigious Night Before the 500 USAC Midget race twice — and back-to-back (2000-01). He was highly regarded and his talent just-tapped driving in the USAC ranks for Lewis when offers began to come in. Kahne was presented with two huge professional opportunities — driving open-wheel cars and driving stock cars.
He decided to try the latter and quickly erased the notion of any learning curve. His natural talent and discipline were apparent immediately. Kahne won Rookie of the Year honors in 2004 driving Dodges for Ray Evernham. He scored 13 top-five finishes that first year (including five runner-up showings) — a high mark for his entire career. His first win was at Richmond Raceway in 2005 and he beat one of his own-kind, USAC legend and good friend Tony Stewart, for the trophy.
In all, Kahne won 18 times at the Cup level — and he won for every team he competed with (with the exception of Leavine Family Racing last year, when his season was cut short due to medical issues). He scored nine wins for Evernham, two for Richard Petty, another for Red Bull Racing and six for the Hendrick organization.
Hendrick Motorsports was so eager to make a deal with Kahne, the team took the unprecedented action of announcing Kahne’s hiring in April 2010, nearly two full seasons before Kahne would actually start racing for the organization.
The anticipation was deserved as Kahne would challenge for championships and hoist trophies. He finishes his full-time Cup career with wins on a wide variety of tracks, from half-mile Bristol, to the 1-mile New Hampshire track, to 1.5-milers at Charlotte and Texas to the Sonoma road course and the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Kahne is one of just 31 drivers in NASCAR history with victories in all three national series. In addition to his 18 Cup races, Kahne won eight Xfinity Series races and five NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series races in six starts.
Not only was Kahne productive on-track, but he became a legitimate, if reluctant, celebrity as well, starring in commercials for sponsors such as Great Clips, Allstate and Farmers Insurance. The Allstate commercials, in particular, gained Kahne plenty of attention with hugely popular spots featuring middle-age women swooning over his good looks and racing talent.
It never was the attention Kahne sought, however. It was always the checkered flag and the feeling of accomplishment that drove him, as did the opportunity to succeed with his family at his side and fans eager to embrace his amazing journey from a small Northwest logging town to the stock-car big time.
“I had a lot of great accomplishments and everything was a dream really,” Kahne said. “As a kid, I just wanted to race and make a living. Making it to NASCAR and the teams I was able to race for, even the people before that that helped me get to NASCAR starting with my parents and then Steve Lewis and Phil Durst, so many people there. It’s crazy that many people came from all over the place. … It was really a fun time.’’
As Kahne will someday reflect on the many trophies he’s earned in his NASCAR career, it feels fitting that his last victory came at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the very place that so accurately represents his early career crossroads and a venue that Kahne had revered above all others.
It is the perfect bow on an incredible career.
“I don’t think always about everything that went on (in my career), but when people remind me, I think, ‘Well that worked out,’ ” he said.
It sure did.