Hendrick signing raises Kahne
Posted: Thursday, April 15, 2010 4:34 pm
By: By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hendrick Motorsports isn’t scheduled to have an open seat in its lineup until 2012.
That didn’t stop owner Rick Hendrick from signing Kasey Kahne, a prized free agent in this year’s class who is willing to wait a year to partner with NASCAR’s winningest team.
Only there are more questions than answers in this pairing, officially announced Wednesday as a multiyear deal that runs through 2014 — although neither side has any idea where Kahne will be driving next season.
“There are so many possibilities, it’s not fair to anyone to speculate yet,” Hendrick said. “We don’t have A, B, C and D yet. If we laid out 10 options, there will be some more, so we just have to wait and see.”
Hendrick has signed Kahne to succeed Mark Martin in the No. 5 Chevrolet. Martin has another year left on his contract, and Hendrick said the 51-year-old Martin does not want to run a full-schedule beyond that. HMS also has Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, both four-time champions, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. locked into long-term contracts.
That leaves Kahne without anything lined up next season, although Hendrick said it is his responsibility to find Kahne a ride for 2011.
The only thing certain is that Kahne will be with a Chevrolet team, and the most obvious option is Stewart-Haas Racing, which has a Hendrick alliance. But Hendrick wasn’t able to officially rule out Kahne being in the No. 5 next season should Martin step aside.
“It would have to be Mark Martin saying he does not want to do what he told me he wants to do,” Hendrick said.
Still, Hendrick said in a statement that Martin will stay in his car next season, fulfilling the two-year contract extension he announced last September.
Kahne began this season as the top driver in a contract year, and said he talked to almost every team in the garage. He had decided before the season-opening Daytona 500 to leave Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of this season, and made an early commitment to join Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011.
But that agreement was contingent on sponsorship, and when a deal didn’t materialize by an April 1 deadline, talks with Hendrick picked up steam. The deal was completed quickly, and word spread before either side was able to work out every detail.
“If this opportunity was going to happen, I knew having some unanswered questions would be part of the scenario at this stage,” Kahne said. “Hendrick Motorsports has a commitment to Mark Martin that they want to fulfill, and that’s important. It’s part of what attracts me to the team.”
Hendrick said Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt all encouraged him to sign Kahne, and Martin had spoken to Kahne about coming to HMS as early as last season.
“In Kasey, we saw an opportunity to cement a big piece of our future,” Hendrick said. “He possesses incredible talent and a tremendous dedication to his craft, and we know he’ll be a great fit within our company.
“Kasey has earned the respect of his future teammates by the way he’s handled himself on and off the racetrack, and we know he’ll be a contributor to the success of Hendrick Motorsports for many years to come. To have someone of his caliber join our team is an unbelievable opportunity for us.”
Hendrick is considered the top organization in NASCAR, winning the last four championships with Johnson. Last season, Johnson, Martin and Gordon led a 1-2-3 sweep of the final Sprint Cup Series standings.
Although the team is considered the ultimate destination for any racer, finding a spot in the lineup can be difficult. Kyle Busch was fired midway through 2007 to make room for Earnhardt, and Casey Mears, with whom Hendrick shared a strong bond, was let go in 2008 for Martin to come aboard.
Kahne, meanwhile, is convinced the deal is the step he needs to compete for a championship.
An 11-time winner and two-time Chase for the Sprint Cup championship qualifier, Kahne has never finished higher than eighth in the standings. That came in 2006, the year he won a career-best six races while Ray Evernham was still running the day-to-day operations of his team.
Evernham later partnered with George Gillett, and the team began a series of roller-coaster moves that culminated with last year’s rushed merger with Richard Petty Motorsports. The organization has been beset with financial problems, and Kahne has been critical of management and a lack of progress.
That all led to an easy decision to sign with Hendrick Motorsports.
Also undecided is who will crew chief Kahne, who has a strong bond with current crew chief Kenny Francis. Although it’s presumed the two were a package deal, Alan Gustafson is currently crew chief for Hendrick’s No. 5 car and there would have to be some sort of shuffle for Francis to follow his driver.
“My relationship with Kenny has been awesome,” Kahne said. “I look forward to working with Kenny the rest of the year and hopefully in the future.”
There’s also been no mention of sponsorship.
Kahne has been with Budweiser for three seasons, since the beer company chose him when it’s lengthy relationship with Earnhardt ended. Hendrick declined to partner with Budweiser when Earnhardt joined his team in 2008.
“It’s been a great partnership, but I don’t know what the future is for myself and Budweiser,” Kahne said.