Kasey kahne, the pride of enumclaw, washington, has emerged as the pride of the rookie contenders, with five top 5 and five top 10 finishes in the first 15 races.

In terms of the battle for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title this season in NASCAR Nextel Cup, it's been fairly cut-and-dried among the six contenders.

Kasey Kahne, the pride of Enumclaw, Washington, has emerged as the pride of the rookie contenders, with five Top 5 and five Top 10 finishes in the first 15 races. He also won four poles during that stretch. None of the other rookies has finished in the Top 10 more than twice (Scott Wimmer was Third at Daytona and Ninth at Dover). In fact, Kahne is on a pace to contend with some of the more recent guiding lights in rookie races, such as Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Ryan Newman.

Kahne's runner-up finish at Michigan in June-which could have been his first victory had not the caution flag waved while he was bearing down on Ryan Newman in Turn 3-was his fifth Top 5 finish. It was also his fourth runner-up finish of the season, which is more than any other driver this year, regardless of status.

Kahne, who is also competing full-time in the NASCAR Busch Series, has been a hot commodity on qualifying day, with his four pole positions. Only Brian Vickers, the rookie standout at Hendrick Motorsports, has a pole through the first 15 races of his rookie season.

Surprises
Just a few years removed from racing Sprint Cars, Kahne could be termed a surprise, if only for the fact that he has burst upon the Nextel Cup scene like a bottle rocket on the 4th of July. Of course, he is in Bill Elliott's old ride, the No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge fielded by Ray Evernham, and that's not a bad ride in which to make your maiden voyage. He also has Tommy Baldwin Jr. atop the pit box, and that doesn't hurt either. Perhaps a bigger surprise in Kahne's performance this season is the fact that he's outside the Top 10 in points. Going into Michigan he was 13th, and coming out with a Second boosted him to 11th.

Vickers, who was a semi-surprise last season in winning the Busch Series title, has started somewhat slower than Kahne, with a single Top 10 finish in 15 races. But he did earn the pole at Richmond in May, and he also has a veteran crewchief in Peter Sospenzo. Vickers is fast, but the step up from Busch has been a little steeper than he might have imagined.

Wimmer, who has more relative experience than the other rookies by virtue of stepping into the Caterpillar Dodge with seven races left in 2003, opened up with a smart Third Place finish in the Daytona 500, but he has since faded somewhat. Of course, an arrest for DUI and the subsequent publicity that generated might have played a role. He and crewchief Frankie Stoddard have shown occasional flashes of brilliance, as at Daytona, but consistency is something the team has struggled to achieve.

In terms of surprises, Brendan Gaughan's arrival in the No. 77 Kodak/ Jasper Dodge has been somewhat overlooked. Gaughan is fast on occasion, qualifying well, but his Shane Wilson-led team has yet to put it together sufficiently over race distance to muster more than a single Top 10.

One surprise happened just before the Pocono race in June when Dave Blaney replaced Johnny Sauter in the No. 30 AOL Chevrolet. Sauter, who won a Busch race for the ages last season at Richmond for Cary Agajanian's Channellock team, was 30th in the points with nary a single Top 10 finish to his credit when he was replaced. His best finishes were a pair of 14ths, at Rockingham and Talladega.