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Fatherhood brings Kahne's life full-circle

Kasey Kahne has been looking forward to fatherhood, and he and his girlfriend will become parents this fall. Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

In October, NASCAR star Kasey Kahne will achieve a lifelong dream: fatherhood.

Kahne's girlfriend, Sam Sheets, is due to deliver a baby boy on Oct. 10.

"I've always really wanted a kid. Absolutely," Kahne said via speakerphone while dragging a sprint car-loaded trailer up the interstate toward Indianapolis. "When I was growing up, I thought I'd have kids by the time I was 25. We're 10 years past that now, of course. But once we found out, I realized how badly I wanted kids.

"It's something that's been on my mind for a long time. I'm really excited to have this type of life-changing experience, and I can't wait to be the best dad I can possibly be."

As any parent will attest, parenthood presents a seismic life shift, and in myriad facets. Routine. Outlook. Perspective. The definition of "rest."

Kahne said impending parenthood is the latest notable moment in a noticeable mid-30s maturation process.

"I'm really excited to have this type of life-changing experience, and I can't wait to be the best dad I can possibly be." Kasey Kahne

He is a consummate racer. Winning -- and determining how to win -- almost always occupies his thoughts. He owns sprint car teams, drives for an elite NASCAR Sprint Cup team and, at times, competes in the Xfinity and Truck series.

If those efforts aren't successful to his satisfaction, he incessantly ponders why.

But it doesn't negatively consume him like it once did. A bad finish on Sunday once meant a sour Monday. Sometimes it meant a sour Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, too. He would stew until Friday, when he could climb back in the car and let the speed and the sound and the renewed focus course through him and remove the frustration.

These days, he has a new perspective: Let it sting a minute. Then let it go.

Not just with racing, but with family, friends, Sam.

"We always shared a lot of the same interests but he didn't really talk about them, he was so shy and reserved," said Keith Rodden, Kahne's crew chief. "He was always really careful about choosing friends, and the people that were around him. He's probably still like that a little bit, but he seems more outgoing now.

"That's part of his maturation. He also has more camaraderie with the team guys now. He gets to know them. He's definitely matured a lot socially, getting to know new people and letting them into his circle sooner."

Age will do that to a man.

"I feel more open to not being perfect," Kahne said. "I'm doing a lot of the same things I'd always do. Age has given me a different perception on life.

"I'm really happy right now. I'm really content with where I am. The only things that still get me mad are racing-related."

Winning still matters as much as it ever did. But failure doesn't matter as much. Rodden said Kahne is still too hard on himself.

"Oh, way too hard," Rodden said with a laugh. "Sometimes things just don't go your way. There's no reason to be real hard on yourself. He's still learning that."

Like father, like son

Kasey said he won't push his own son to be a racer. But if son dreams to race like father, then father will do everything he can to help.

It's a lesson Kasey learned from his parents, Kelly and Tammy Kahne, who exposed him to other sports and interests before he committed fully to motorsports.

"One of the coolest things I remember with my parents, is they always wanted me to play sports," Kahne said. "That was big to them, me playing baseball and basketball. And they pulled me from racing, in a way."

When Kahne's competitive focus did shift fully toward racing, at age 14, Kelly still wasn't convinced it was the right decision.

"Kasey was always super-focused on racing," Kelly said. "But at that age we didn't know if that's really what he wanted ... We wanted to make sure he wasn't doing it for any other reason than because he loved it. As a dad, I didn't want him in a race car risking anything unless it's exactly what he wanted it to be.

"I had other race car drivers drive my cars before Kasey, and I was always concerned about their safety. But when it's your own son it's different. It's a lot harder and a lot more gratifying -- a lot more extreme in every part of it."


Ready for new role

Kahne is the latest in a string of NASCAR first-time fathers over the past several years that includes, most recently, 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski and 29-time Cup race winner Kyle Busch, both of whom became dads in late May.

"He'll be an awesome dad," said Rodden, who returned to Kahne's team as crew chief this year after a year away from the team as Jamie McMurray's crew chief.

"He loves children and he's so good with them. That's one thing that was odd last year, not being on his team. He made such an impression on [Rodden's daughter] Emmy, that any time she was at the track she wanted to go see Mr. Kasey. As shy as he is, he's so great with the kids. And I doubt anybody outside the industry even knows that."

Kahne began preparing years ago, as evidenced by his 40-acre property in rural North Carolina. His home rests there, as do adjacent homes for his sister and brother and their families.

The idea was to grow up and grow old together.

"It speaks volumes about where his heart is and his thought process about life," Kelly Kahne said. "He really understands and appreciates what family means. Sure, there's been times when feathers were ruffled, but we all come back to what's most important, and for us that's to stay tight as a family."

Kahne's sister, Shanon Adams, echoes her father's sentiments.

"Family has always been Kasey's priority," Adams said. "To be able to have the kids grow up together and be really close cousins, and for me and Kale and Kasey to be close enough to be neighbors, and walk to each other's homes for dinner, is something we're so grateful for."

Kahne loves the thought that his son will grow up alongside his family, playing with his cousins.

"That was my No. 1 thought going into it, and it's fun to see it actually coming together that way," he said. "It's what I dreamed for."

Adams said Kahne has long been the cool uncle. Adams has three children, 7-year old Eli -- who two months ago began his racing career -- and 4-year-old twin daughters. Kahne's brother, Kale, has a 7-month-old daughter.

"He's a really great uncle, really into the kids," Adams said. "He lights up when they're around, and they're always so excited to see him. They're constantly asking to go hang out with uncle Kasey."


Dialing down the pressure

Kahne, by nature, is a very private man. He was uneasy about how to announce that he would soon become a father. Just because he's a NASCAR driver doesn't mean there should be added pressure, he figured.

He has enough pressure as it is. His is a performance-based job, especially considering he's employed by the most dominant force in the industry. In his first three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne logged five wins and four poles, including a single victory and no poles in 2014.

But in November, the pressure was relieved somewhat when Kahne signed a three-year contract extension to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet through the 2018 season.

"I've always raced knowing I need to perform to stay here, and when I re-did the deal with Hendrick it was a really big deal for me, personally," he said. "I felt it meant Rick [Hendrick] really wanted me to be there, and that the team, the guys, and everything we'd worked on and we'd built around the last three years, that I'd be a part of that. It definitely took some pressure off of me.

"Hendrick is just the best place. The way they treat you, the way you work together to find speed and the teammates I have, how it all flows. It's perfect for me right now."

In an attempt to improve Kahne's performance, Hendrick replaced Kahne's crew chief of the past 10 seasons, Kenny Francis, with Rodden. The decision was difficult for Kahne, given the friendship and success he and Francis achieved.

But Rodden is a disciple of Francis, and one of Kahne's closest friends. They go to dinner weekly to chat race cars and family, and Rodden says Kahne's commentary is more open and more vulnerable.

In fact, Rodden was among the first people with whom Kahne shared the news that he would soon be a dad.

"I kept him up-to-date on it the entire time. He's a good friend, and he works super hard and he's really smart. That's a big deal, and once we get rolling and get our wins, it's all going to pay off," Kahne said.

"I still feel like I look at things and think about things in a similar way to how I have for a while. But I do feel like I've matured a lot, and I understand how many different ways there are to do anything you want to do. There's not just one way. And I feel like I'm way more open and relaxed and mature to life, what it throws at you, racing, family, friends, whatever."