For Kasey Kahne, It was a matter of when, not if, he would leave Richard Petty Motorsports.
Now that his relationship with Hendrick Motorsports is official, there are still questions needing answers.
Can anyone stop Hendrick?
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Rick Hendrick’s now the George Steinbrenner of NASCAR, not only in his ability to win championships, but by acquiring top dollar talent in the garage from the drivers on down the roster. Certainly, the results justify his actions. Hendrick engines have won four of the first seven races this season, and a Hendrick driver’s won the last four championships.
However, the new NASCAR owner model is changing again. Team owners have obviously discovered a way to circumvent NASCAR’s four-team rule by merging with other teams and/or making said teams “retail partners.” Roush Fenway Racing started the practice with Yates Racing, then went one step further and moved Richard Petty Motorsports onto the RFR campus.
Hendrick went around it and took the process one step further, by not only providing its satellite operation at Stewart-Haas Racing with championship caliber equipment, but enlisting talent of an equivalent standard to race it. In 2011, it’s possible HMS/SHR could have seven cars in the Chase.
Finally, when a team has a winning percentage such as Hendrick — 13 of 36 races last season (36 per cent) — how can other organizations compete off the track when it comes to sponsorship? Put simply, they can’t.
What are Kahne’s options in 2011?
Hendrick says the responsibility to place Kasey on a team next year lies with him. Multiple sources still say Kahne drives a Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet next season. The only way that scenario changes is if Mark Martin decides to retire early, or run a limited schedule. Hendrick said Martin didn’t wish to race full-time after 2011. Other than the contract with GoDaddy.com, there’s nothing to stop Martin from an early semi-retirement. "It would have to be Mark Martin’s thing that he does not want to do what he told me he wanted to do," Hendrick said.
JR Motorsports doesn’t appear to be an option, either. According to Hendrick, ”Junior’s made it pretty clear that he wants to see that a Nationwide organization. That could change subject to Danica’s (Patrick) decisions."
Is there any more room at the ‘Inn’?
That really depends on which inn. Due to NASCAR’s current four full-time team cap, the Hendrick Motorsports Inn is full until Mark Martin steps down. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s in the third year of a five-year contract, although the first three seasons haven’t been sunshine and lollipops. Jeff Gordon, who once claimed he didn’t want to be racing past 40, has changed his tune. So, the landscape could change for HMS in the next few years, despite Hendrick’s contention that, “I’ll probably retire before I need anybody else.”
And speaking of inns, is Hendrick like Hilton Hotels, where the options range from the Hampton Inn to the Waldorf-Astoria, or are they all Hiltons? Would someone like Kevin Harvick jump ship from Richard Childress Racing knowing Stewart-Haas Racing could actually evolve into Hendrick Lite? Just when the buzz started that SHR was receiving inferior equipment, Ryan Newman silenced the chatter with his win in Phoenix.
What can Kahne expect the rest of the season?
Several sources confirm that Kahne promised crew chief Kenny Francis and the No. 9 team support squad that they’d follow him to his next venture. That might have been the case, when Kahne’s ride appeared to be with Joe Gibbs Racing.
However, Hendrick said Wednesday it would be premature to determine the team makeup for 2011. He admits there could be struggles, but he’s more concerned about 2012 and beyond.
As it stands, there’s nothing guaranteed for the crew beyond next season.
Can any driver sustain 29 races as a ‘Lame duck’?
Finally, given the disparity in equipment at RPM already, the best Kahne can hope for is to carry the testing banner for the Roush cars the remainder of the year.
Chances are good that Kahne will no longer be invited to weekly team meetings or debriefs. While he remained optimistic during his teleconference, he isn’t kidding anyone if he believes this team has any chance of making the Chase. Perhaps he’s already thinking, ‘there’s always next year, and the year after that.’
For Hendrick, it may be time to find a back-up plan for Kahne before season’s end. After all, Kurt Busch was shown the curb early after his decision to depart Roush for Penske Racing.