By DICK BRINSTER
Kasey Kahne is especially popular among female race fans.
He's handsome, intelligent, articulate and soft-spoken -- all qualities car owner Ray Evernham came to recognize in his early days as mentor to four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon. Evernham also sees in Kahne a rising talent with championship potential.
But Kahne is fighting his way through any perception that he's just another pretty face, perfect for promoting the sport while he learns how to drive.
"Some girls will just walk up to you and give you a kiss on the cheek and whisper something in your ear," Kahne said somewhat reluctantly. "You get a lot of things you wouldn't expect."
The biggest concern this bachelor has in dealing with fans is being a gentleman. Ruled out is his signature on anything he deems improper -- especially body parts.
"You autograph something that you shouldn't and it will be a picture somewhere," Kahne said. "I have to watch what I sign."
Evernham is careful in his own right -- about who he signs to drive his cars. Still, he chuckles over what he calls the ultimate test for Kahne.
"I introduced him to my wife and I said, 'What do you think about this guy?"' Evernham recalled. "And she said, 'I don't know if he can drive or not, but he's going to be a hit with the girls."'
Asked if he thought female fans were a distraction, Evernham laughed.
"Not for me," he said.
But he said such things are not a concern because Kahne is so dedicated. Still, the team does its part to enhance Kahne's somewhat manufactured image.
"A lot of it is us just having fun with him," Evernham said. "He enjoys his life a little bit, as I would at 25 if I looked like him."
Kahne smiles at that.
"It's been fun," he allowed. "But what I really want to do is drive to win."
Committed to winning
That's what impresses his car owner the most.
"He's committed," Evernham said. "His number one goal is to win races and championships."
Evernham is particularly impressed that Kahne is more formidable the second time around on tracks where the circuit races more than once a year.
Despite some poor results that have made it unlikely Kahne will be part of the elite field that will contest the championship over the final 10 events, Evernham says it would take more than bad fortune to change his mind about Kahne.
Evernham watched Kahne advance through the ranks in the fashion of superstars Gordon, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman -- starring in open-wheel cars on short tracks in the Midwest. Later, Kahne came to NASCAR in the Busch series.
Although Kahne's progress wasn't as dramatic as some had forecast, Evernham never lost faith.
"People had given up on him the way they gave up on Bill Elliott," Evernham said of the former NASCAR champion he chose as the cornerstone driver four years ago for his fledgling Dodge team. "They didn't believe in his talent and I did."
Won with different rides
In Kahne, Evernham saw a driver who proved he could win in different rides with what the car owner said was not the best support he could have received in the Busch series.
"You don't have to spend much time around a guy to determine that he's got the desire," Evernham said.
Sometimes too much desire. Kahne, 19th in the points, makes mistakes, at times trying for a better finish than his equipment will allow.
"I'm working hard not to overdrive the car," he said.
But that's not a major concern to Evernham.
"He runs wide open, and we've just got to make sure that our stuff is there to the end however hard he wants to run it," Evernham said. "I'd rather get our equipment to where he needs it than have him change his driving style."
Kahne, the 2004 rookie of the year who in a short period has become one of the top qualifiers on the circuit, knows races cannot be won with a timid approach. He had six second-place finishes before his breakthrough victory last month in Richmond, Va., in just his 47th career start.
"We knew we were capable, but we had to make it happen," Kahne said. "We now know that we not only can run up front, but we can finish the deal and get the win."
Will more victories make him even more popular with female fans?
"All I want to do is drive the car," he said. "The other stuff just comes with it."