Kahne to drive No. 9 Bud Dodge next season

STATESVILLE, N.C. -- Kasey Kahne rode into Building 3 at Gillett Evernham Motorsports on a large wagon pulled by the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. He then helped unveil a red No. 9 Dodge with Bud written across the hood.

He later sat in a chair clutching a Budweiser bottle between his legs and wearing a red Budweiser cap.

Yes, it's now official.

Kahne is the new Bud Man.

Kahne will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr., who on Wednesday in Dallas will announce Mountain Dew and the new energy drink Amp as his sponsor at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, as Anheuser-Busch's spokesman next season.

"You can't compare me to Dale Jr.," Kahne said of NASCAR's most popular driver. "You can't compare anybody to Dale Jr. That guy is in a league of his own. But as far as us, we can do everything possible to get better and bigger because of Budweiser than I've been before."

GEM majority owner George Gillett began talking to Tony Ponturo, the vice president of sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch, earlier this year about possibly sponsoring his Liverpool soccer club team.

Ponturo opted against that. But upon learning Gillett was getting into NASCAR and knowing that Earnhardt was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. and his beer sponsorship for HMS, the two kept in touch.

That ultimately turned into a multiyear deal with GEM to sponsor Kahne, who also will keep AllState as an associate sponsor.

"Will he be the typical Bud guys of decades before?" Schoen said. "No. We're going to see new marketing position that might be slightly different than you've seen in years past."

Schoen said there's no way to estimate what Budweiser lost in Earnhardt. He said it may be two or three years before anybody knows whether Kahne can reach the same marketing status.

"I think you're going to see something different," he said of Kahne, who will work with responsible drinking programs through Budweiser and AllState.

"When we signed Dale nine years ago he was this young guy, pretty rough around the edges. We kind of grew a marketing juggernaut, if you will. We're going to take a similar approach to that."

Schoen said it was apparent from the time Earnhardt announced he was going to HMS that he would not be with Budweiser.

"That was communicated to us, that it [Earnhardt's new sponsor] was basically something that was a pre-negotiated deal," he said. "Now it's water under the bridge."

The transition for fans won't be difficult. The car looks almost exactly the same except it's a red Dodge and not a Chevrolet and the number is a 9 and not an 8.

"We're honest with everybody," Schoen said. "If Junior had come with us we would have continued on and probably evolved and massaged his image as well."

How big is this deal for GEM?

"Bigger than the Clydesdales," Gillett said. "It's a real testimony to Ray and his history and his future. And it's a great testimony to Kasey Kahne. He's got that appeal, that 'it.' Whatever 'it' is, he's got it."

The deal allows GEM to put the money Dodge Motorsports invested from a sponsorship side into the engineering and developmental side.

Gillett said there's a possibility Elliott Salder's No. 19 car, which also carries the Dodge logo on the hood, could be sold to another sponsor.

"We have options," he said. "We can go that way or we can go other ways. We have a very good relationship with Dodge and the Dodge dealers."

Kahne, who already has replaced one legend in Bill Elliott, welcomes the opportunity to expand his image past the guy middle-aged women go nuts over in his AllState commercials.

Admittedly a shy person, he believes Budweiser will help him show more of his true personality.

"It can take us higher than we were before as long as we perform," said Kahne, who did not make the Chase for the Nextel Cup after winning a series-high six races a year ago. "Like when I got in Bill Elliott's car, the reason I got his fans was because we performed right off the start.

"If we do that with Budweiser it will be the same thing. We won't be at Dale Jr.'s level, but you're going to grow."

David Newton covers motorsports for ESPN.com.