Sonoma win a turning point for Kahne

When you think about it, "Kasey Kahne" could as easily be the name of some new action figure being marketed by Mattel. Or maybe a teddy bear, even a video game -- but some sort of toy.

That's the way he is viewed, it seems, by his youthful faithful … and by lots of ladies.

"A kid doesn't say, 'Kasey is my favorite,'" he acknowledged Tuesday. "She'll say, 'Kasey Kahne.' To a kid, I think 'Kasey Kahne' sounds like one word.'"

He's right, by all my anecdotal evidence. Among young people, especially college students and young adults, I hear "I'm a big Kasey Kahne fan," but never "I'm a big Kahne fan" or "my man Kasey."

The other thing is, "I kind of look younger," he said.

So his whole appeal has been based on youth, and a boyish kind of matinee-idol looks.

But the clock is running. He's a ripe old 29 now, and you might have noticed in his postrace interviews -- such as after his fifth-place run at Pocono on Monday -- that his demeanor seems more grown up, his jaw more chiseled from granite, his voice more certain.

Maybe it's my imagination, but this leap forward in adulthood seems to have occurred suddenly this summer.

Maybe you grow up awfully fast when you find yourself leading the final laps on a road course -- which isn't supposed to be your strong suit at all -- with a mirror full of Tony Stewart, dogging you, waiting for you to make the slightest kid's mistake.

Beating Stewart, one of the top two or three road racers in NASCAR, at Sonoma, Calif., in June remains a huge shot of self-confidence to Kahne, "just to know that I didn't make mistakes, I just kept hitting my marks and doing the best I could … and it was good enough. Yeah, to beat Tony, and Juan [Pablo Montoya] was right there, and [Marcos] Ambrose, it felt really good," he said.

Now the Cup series heads to the other road course, at Watkins Glen, N.Y., this weekend.

And Kasey Kahne, the kid, the toy, is Kasey Kahne, The Man.

"He never slipped a wheel or missed a corner," an awestruck Stewart had told reporters following his second-place finish to Kahne in June. "He was better than we were. The kid was awesome." (Note the habitual reference to "the kid.")

At first it had surprised Stewart, who'd raced against Kahne on grassroots dirt tracks in USAC but never considered the kid a road-racer at all … until Stewart, no matter where he was in the pack throughout the pit-strategy shuffling of the Sonoma race, kept seeing the red Budweiser No. 9 either in his mirrors or through his windshield all afternoon.

"At the end it became a shootout between us and it wasn't surprising at that point of the day," Stewart recalled this week in pre-Glen comments sent out by his publicist. "But during the day with him running the pace he was running, I wasn't used to seeing that from him.

"But he did it consistently all day, and obviously he's picked it up and has got it figured out."

Kahne joins a handful of NASCAR drivers who have road racing figured out enough to win at it -- Stewart, Montoya, Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Kyle Busch …

He never slipped a wheel or missed a corner. He was better than we were. The kid was awesome.

-- Tony Stewart on Kasey Kahne
winning at Sonoma

"I figured out I needed a little bit different feeling than maybe I was looking for [in the car setup]," Kahne said. "Maybe the communication I was giving [crew chief] Kenny [Francis] -- he was giving me a certain feeling, and on a long race run it just kind of went away [in the past]."

But, Kahne acknowledged up front, he has a huge new mechanical breakthrough for road racing -- his brake package, which is as vital on serpentine circuits as the gearbox.

"We made some big gains at Sonoma from where we'd been in the past on a race run, and one of the things was the brakes," he said. "My brakes never faded the entire race.

"In the past they'd always told me, 'You've got to take care of 'em, and that's just part of it.' Well, I was getting outbroke at the end of races by other cars."

I think he meant "outbraked," in Formula One and sports car lingo, but that just shows how new to success at road racing Kahne is.

"We finally hit on some stuff there, and I thought my brake package was awesome at Sonoma, which will help at Watkins Glen."

That, finally, is some meaningful innovation from Kahne's team, which has devolved underneath him from original benefactor Ray Evernham to Gillett Evernham Motorsports and now to the otherwise-troubled Richard Petty Motorsports.

Seventh in points and a solid bet to make the Chase, Kahne is the brightest spot, with the best sponsorship, on a team that's been hurting for money and up-front competitiveness.

Oh, he'll argue with you about the overall sponsorship, citing Best Buy for Elliott Sadler and Valvoline for A.J. Allmendinger -- but none is as lucrative as his Bud deal, and otherwise, "We're just trying to keep our head above water," Petty told reporters last week about RPM overall.

Nobody else has won for RPM, and nobody has nearly as much potential to win again, as soon as Sunday, as Kahne.

In hard times, Kasey Kahne the toy, the kid, the youth idol, has become Kasey Kahne the grownup, carrying a whole team on his back.

What would his fan base make of this newly hard-set jaw, deeper voice and surer demeanor? Well, children grow up too, and women like men of substance, such as, say, a championship.

And his name would still be fun to say.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.