Hendrick signs Kahne to drive in 2012

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.