Kasey Kahne stood at the line, focused and ready to win — but not with his usual calm.
"Yeah, I’m a little nervous," he said, "but not like I would be if it was right before a race."
The popular NASCAR driver stood at the foul line inside the Thomas & Mack Center, participating in a shooting contest during a break in Tuesday’s game between UNLV — Kahne’s favorite college basketball team when he was growing up in Enumclaw, Wash. — and San Diego State.
Usually, the contest is between two fans and offers the use of a Saturn car for a year if one of the contestants can make a layup, free throw, 3-pointer and half-court shot.
Kahne played high school basketball until his senior year, when he turned his attention to racing open-wheel cars on dirt tracks. It was a good choice for the 5-foot-7-inch guard.
He showed a nice shooting touch Tuesday but lost to Ryan Wolfe, UNLV’s record-setting wide receiver who was inserted as a ringer for Rebels football coach Mike Sanford.
"Maybe I should have practiced a little," Kahne said.
Coming up short didn’t detract from an enjoyable visit to Las Vegas for Kahne, one day before he was to leave for Daytona Beach, Fla., to compete in this weekend’s Budweiser Shootout, a nonpoints Cup race in which he will drive the No. 9 Dodge for Richard Petty Motorsports (formerly Gillett Evernham Motorsports).
As the winner of a Cup race last year, Kahne is obligated to help promote three races this season. In each interview Tuesday, he said how he looked forward to the March 1 Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — as he should. Kahne holds the Cup race qualifying record, finished second as a rookie in 2004 and won the pole twice.
Joining him for his Las Vegas press junket was his publicist, Lisa Hemphill, and Jeff Motley, senior director of public relations at LVMS. They let me tag along for the six-hour tour.
Kahne’s visit was nonstop, except for a dinner break. Four local TV stations interviewed him, and he handled each with aplomb, as did the sportscasters.
Kahne, 28, quickly shifted from racing star to basketball fan once he walked into the Thomas & Mack at 6:30 p.m.
He met cordial Rebels coach Lon Kruger less than an hour before the game began. Kahne greeted baseball great and Rebels fan Greg Maddux, who said he followed NASCAR while playing in Atlanta.
Walking through the bowels of the T&M, Kahne stopped to peruse photos of players from past Rebels squads.
The nine-time Cup race winner then used his cell-phone camera to capture the image of a poster-sized photo of rodeo great Ty Murray. "I really like Ty," Kahne said.
Kahne also loves his one-year affiliation with Budweiser, and not just because he was a Bud drinker before being paid to be one. Witnesses attest to that, too.
Thanks to Bud’s connections, Kahne was a guest at last weekend’s Super Bowl festivities and game. He played in the DirecTV flag-football contest for celebrities Saturday when he was coached by Eli Manning and hung out with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, a NASCAR fan.
The tour, organized by Motley, was flawless to the point that Kahne was dropped off at the MGM at 9:09 p.m. — Kahne’s car number is "9" — to kill an hour or so before catching a red-eye back to snowy Charlotte, N.C.
Before I followed Kahne around Tuesday, this space was going to be devoted to this weekend’s openings for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and NHRA Full Throttle seasons. Each optimistic vision would have been clouded by mentions of a driver unemployed, race team parked or sponsor lost.
My epiphany came after spending time with Kahne.
He’s genuine, modest and humble — three words that can’t be used to describe many Cup stars.
The whirlwind tour was a welcome breath of fresh air, replacing my pessimistic vision — at least for a while.
(For more on Kahne’s tour, go to lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal.)
Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 702- 383-0247 or firstname.lastname@example.org.