Hendrick Motorsports sent a clear message that it intends to set the pace in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing for years to come last week, announcing that Kasey Kahne will leave Richard Petty Motorsports at the conclusion of this season to drive for HMS, beginning in 2012.
Kahne has been with RPM since his rookie season of Cup competition back in 2004, and he called the opportunity to drive for NASCAR’s premier team “an awesome opportunity. It’s the best opportunity I could have, and I’m going to make the most of it. I feel like I had to make a decision for my future. This was something I really wanted to do, and it makes sense to do it.”
With Mark Martin already slated to wheel the #5 Chevrolet next season, Kahne is technically left without a ride for the 2011 campaign; a situation Hendrick will make his personal responsibility to remedy. “We haven’t locked in on what we’re going to do in 2011,” admitted Hendrick, “but there are a lot of options. It’s not something we’ve got any deadline on, but we should have something done in the next 90 days, for sure.”
Widespread speculation has Stewart Haas Racing the leading candidate to host Kahne next season, fielding a much-anticipated third Chevrolet with considerable support and logistical help from Hendrick. Tony Stewart admitted that he and Hendrick spoke about the possibility early last week, but insisted that it was far too early even to speculate about a Kahne-Stewart- Ryan Newman triumvirate for 2012.
Kahne said he is not worried about the situation. “We’re going to figure out 2011 shortly, and I know it will be a great situation,” he said. “I have a comfort level with Mr. Hendrick, my future teammates and the culture of the organization. For me, it's the right fit on every level, and I think it gives me a great chance to win races and compete for championships.”
Hendrick echoed those thoughts, saying, “Knowing that Mark was wanting to retire after the 2011 season, we saw it as golden opportuntity to pick up great talent and a guy that all our drivers had solicited me to go after. We saw an opportunity to cement a big piece of our future. 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.”
While Kahne’s signing cemented Hendrick Motorsports’ status as NASCAR’s top team for at least the foreseeable future, it delivered a body blow to Kahne’s current employer, Richard Petty Motorsports. Just days before, reports surfaced that majority owner George Gillett had defaulted on an approximately $90 million loan associated with the team. Gillett insisted that the default was technical in nature and that no payments had been missed, but published reports quoted anonymous sources familiar with the situation saying that payments had been missed dating back as far as November of 2009.
"Kasey is a very talented driver and I have enjoyed watching him race,” said Richard Petty in the aftermath of the move. We all wish him nothing but the best and hope he succeeds in anything he chooses to do.
Both Kahne and Gillett pledged to finish their association as strongly as possible. “I'm excited and relieved to have the decision made and announced,” said Kahne last week. “Now it's my responsibility to put all of my energy into winning races and having a successful 2010 with my current team and our sponsors." Unfortunately, succeeding as a lame-duck team – especially over a span of five months and 29 point-counting races – is much easier said than done. If things go badly for the #9 Ford in coming weeks (and the team’s last few outings give cause to believe that they might) the second-guessing and finger-pointing will almost certainly follow in short order.
Perhaps more important, the loss of their marquee performer does nothing to help RPM shed the image of instability spawned by multiple mergers, realignments and management changes in recent seasons. It’s remaining three drivers; AJ Allmendinger, Elliott Sadler and Paul Menard are all in the final year of their respective contracts, as well, and RPM Managing Partner Foster Gillett – son of the owner -- admitted recently that his 2011 driver lineup is, “a work in progress. We are working to have the best drivers we can. Richard (Petty) preaches to us to focus on building the best race cars we can and we'll have sponsors and drivers."
Acknowledging the doubts harbored my some about the team’s ability to overcome the loss of Kahne, the younger Gillett said, "Many people were saying the same thing last year, (but) we're still here. We survived and thrived and we'll do it again. When change like this happens, it opens up opportunities for others. We are focusing on the opportunities we have more than what we lose."
Gillett also said he hopes to retain Budweiser as a major sponsor after Kahne departs. “My family has a wonderful relationship with Anheuser Busch, (and) we will put out a maximum effort to keep them,” he said. “If they ask me to run through this wall, I'll do it."
More power than ever is now concentrated within the walls of Hendrick Motorsports. In many ways, Rick Hendrick has become the George Steinbrenner of NASCAR. He enjoys status as the ultimate “go-to destination” for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers, along with the resources to hire anyone he wants and sufficient sponsorship to finance it all at an extremely high level. What’s good for Hendrick Motorsports, however, is not necessarily what’s best for NASCAR, especially in an era when many fans have already grown weary of four consecutive Jimmie Johnson championship coronations.
That’s someone’s problem, but it’s not Rick Hendrick’s. His job is to win races and championships; as many as possible. He’s proven to be pretty good at it.