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Back in January, only the truest racing fans had heard of him. Enumclaw’s Kasey Kahne was just another kid in a talented rookie class trying to make it in the big-money, grumbling-engine world of auto racing. But there was promise, and promise landed him in the red No. 9 Dodge car at Daytona in February.

Then he finished second at Rockingham, second in Las Vegas and third in Atlanta, and people started paying attention. Suddenly, at 24, he was the hottest new star in the sport.

By summer, People magazine had named him one of its 50 most eligible bachelors. So many people were clamoring for his souvenirs that the small T-shirt business his mother, Tammy, was running from the family garage in Enumclaw had to be moved to a local Dodge dealership.

But it wasn’t until Tammy Kahne stopped by the Mark Topping Dodge offices one morning this summer and tripped over 100 people sleeping on the sidewalk just to get a wristband that would allow them to meet her son on a trip home that she realized how big this had become.

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In the end, Kahne had an incredible rookie year, with 13 top-five finishes, including five second-place results, and 14 top 10s in 36 starts on the Nextel Cup circuit. He finished 13th overall in the final points standings.

Then, in November, he was named rookie of the year, the youngest person to win the award since 22-year-old Jeff Gordon was chosen in 1993. Never much of one for words, Kahne said little about his year other than to continually point out that he failed to win a race.

“I’ve enjoyed this season a lot,” he recently wrote on his Web site. “But it’s over and we can get rejuvenated for next year. I definitely have higher expectations for next year and I think our whole team will.”

Les Carpenter