In continuation of our feature on “first seasons,” Speedway Media catches up with former NASCAR driver and World of Outlaw team owner, Kasey Kahne. During this interview, Kahne talks about his 2003 Busch Series season, which was his first full season in NASCAR driving the No. 38 Great Clips car. He also discusses what it was like breaking into NASCAR at a young age, whether it was the right time for him, and if he ever had the chance to time travel, what he would tell a younger version of himself.
SM: Coming out of your 2002 Busch Series season, you ran part-time but got a full-time ride with the No. 38. What was it like breaking into NASCAR at the age of 22? Did you think it was the right time to break in or maybe too young?
KK: “I thought it was the perfect time to break in and have the opportunity to have a great sponsor (Great Clips) and a really good team who had a lot of potential, you know? I thought we did a really good job that year in ’03. I learned a ton of that style of racing cars, the cars, working with people and things. It was a blast. I didn’t know a whole lot going into it, but I learned a lot throughout that season.”
SM: After running a partial schedule in 2002, you got connected with Brad Akins in the No. 38. Describe how you got connected with him to give you a full-time shot?
KK: “The biggest thing I remember was, it was Brad Akins and Doug Stringer was running it for him (Akins). I remember when I ran a partial season in ’02, Ford was wanting me to do all that and pushing me to be in the Busch Series. However, Yates and the Ford owners weren’t super into it, you know? They were more focused on their Cup teams and what they had going on there. So, I was kind of like getting pushed into it because of Ford and the other guys didn’t really care a whole lot about what we were doing. But then, Doug Stringer and Brad Akins came along and they wanted to make that program go, and wanted me to be the driver. That was the first time in NASCAR, where everybody wanted me including Ford. Yeah, so they (Stringer and Akins) pushed hard to make gains. The first race out at Daytona, we were really competitive right off the start. It just showed it was about the people, who wanted it and who didn’t. At that point, I was in a really good position and a good situation.”
SM: You were also racing Sprint Cars along with NASCAR. Was that ever a challenge for you trying to go back and forth? How long did it take for you to get adjusted?
KK: “It wasn’t a ton of a challenge. The Sprint Cars is where I had a lot of laps and done a lot there in that style of racing. Going back to those, going to Midgets, going to Silver Crown cars was fairly easy. As long as I was on pavement, I was really competitive. If I was on dirt, it was a little bit more difficult. On pavement, I was competitive at everything we did at that point in time. That would give me some confidence, because we would run really well and win some of those races, then get back in the Busch car and feel good, confident, excited to be back in that car as well. I thought it was a good time for me at that point in time.”
SM: Upon entering the 2003 season, do you remember having any high expectations like a set win total in mind, or take it race by race and see where we stand at the halfway point in the season?
KK: “I wanted to win, ever since I raced cars, it was all I ever wanted to do. At that point in time, I really struggled in that first year in the Busch car with Yates. So, I was unsure (going into 2003). The Great Clips team that I was going with, Stringer and Akins, they were in the 30s in points the year before. I was unsure how we would do, but I thought we could do better than the previous year. Right off the bat, we were competitive and fast. At that point, I had confidence and was excited to see what we could do that season.”
SM: Going into that season, did you know any drivers that you sought advice from in the garage?
KK: “Tony Stewart would have been the guy, the lone survivor, who I had a ton of respect for and looked up too. He was excited for my opportunity because of where I had come from, racing the similar cars like he was doing. I remember at specific tracks, he would go down in the corners and watch me, try to give me advice and help me throughout the weekend once in a while, that was really cool.
“As far as learning the cars and trying to understand more about what I needed, how the cars worked, I learned from Shane Hmiel. He would always have really good advice and he drove really well and knew a lot about cars from his dad. So I thought, I learned from Shane Hmiel in that situation and then, Tony Stewart as far as driving it.”
SM: That first year was also your first trip to Daytona as a driver. What was it like for you making your first trip to Daytona? When did it hit you where you said, “Wow, I’m here at Daytona?”
KK: “What I thought was really cool was going through the tunnel for the first time. Just going through the tunnel and you come out of the tunnel, and the banking of the racetrack, you’re in the infield and you’re like, wow. I’m here and I get to actually race this track. You know, I had been there the year before just to watch. But actually going in, getting to race my first time at Daytona was incredible and really cool.”
SM: Was there ever a point in that season, where it started to click for you in driving behind the wheel and getting comfortable with a new team?
KK: “I thought right off the bat, we were better than a lot of people, including myself, in terms of what we were expecting. It was nice right off the start. I feel like any time in racing, the more you’re doing it, the better you’re getting in every aspect. The experience is so key in racing in what we do. I felt like, I was learning all season long which I needed.”
SM: Every driver has a race they wish they could have another chance to do over again. For you, is there a specific race that comes to mind in the 2003 season that you wish you had another shot at?
KK: “In ’03, I really don’t have a lot that I think about still to this day. I feel like 2004 I did. Only because, we were so close to winning more often and didn’t win in the Cup Series that year. I remember those well because we were the best car in some of them and different things happen to hold us from winning. In ’03, I felt like we kept getting better as the season went and by the end of the year, we won the final race of the season (Homestead), as that was our best showing.”
“That year seemed like it worked the way it was supposed to. You keep improving all season long and won at the end.”
SM: Speaking of winning that final race at Homestead. What does it still mean to you after all these years? Is it something you look back on fondly and do you ever go back to watch that race?
KK: “Yeah, I watched it plenty of times. I haven’t watched it here recently and I remember it well. The track had just been repaved. It’s Homestead and the track was such a cool place when they repaved it like that. The pavement was black and today, it’s white and grey. So it changed real quick.”
“I remember we had speed, the whole time. I was really excited. Things were going my way at that point in time. It was pretty awesome to finish that season with a win.”
SM: Looking back, is there anything you would have changed during your first full-season in 2003?
KK: “Not in that season,” he said. “I felt like that season was such a good year for learning. I was so focused and into it back then. Learning and taking everything in as I could. It was a great start for what my goals were. I was really happy with 2003 and how it all worked out.”
“I mean, I could go look back at it and say, if I had this experience in ’03 or ’04, I would have done so much better at certain tracks but I didn’t have that experience. It was just a really nice year.”
SM: Are there any memories that you still remember to this day about that specific season?
KK: “Winning that final Busch race and going into Rockingham in 2003,” Kahne said.
“I was slow in 2002 at Rockingham when I ran in the Busch Series. I had always wondered if it was me or the car, and I figured out right away at Rockingham, it definitely wasn’t me because in 2003 we were fast right off the bat. It showed I had a better car from being slow with the 2002 car when I ran part-time. I think I ran fourth in 2003 at Rockingham. I still had a ton to learn at that point in time and that’s what I worked on all season. But the reason I was slow the year before, it was not me as much as it may have appeared at the time.”
“I was always really proud of Rockingham and finishing the year off with a win. I was proud of those accomplishments.”
SM: Is there anything in your memorabilia that reminds you of your 2003 season?
KK: “I have my rookie year (fire) suits and a diecast when it was the Great Clips car when it was Ford. It was only one-year like that (Ford) and the next year, it was Great Clips and Dodge. But yeah, that’s all I have are those and it’s really cool to see them.”
SM: It’s been 17 years since that season. What would a 40-year-old Kasey Kahne tell a 22-year-old Kasey Kahne if you had the chance to time travel?
KK: “I’d have a lot of things to tell him. I think there were a lot of ways at the time, to focus and learn. I thought I did a really good job of it, but looking back at it today, if I know someone else in that same situation, I can help in a lot of ways to keep them pointed in the right direction. I just feel like, adapt and learn quicker than I was able to.”