The Frontstretch: Will Kahne Be Much Better At Hendrick? Not If Recent History Is A Guide by Kurt Smith -- Thursday April 29, 2010

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Whenever a high profile driver changes teams, much is made of how well he will perform at his new digs. Either he will finally realize his long-stifled talent, or there’s going to be some struggles while the new team “gets back on track” with the help of his leadership in the garage.

It seemed like the motorsports press in general couldn’t make up its mind with Kasey Kahne’s recent move to Hendrick Motorsports; one week he was going to be a champion his first season, the next he wasn’t going to light any fires.

In reality, you can probably place your money on Kahne performing about the same as he had been… likely no better or worse. Just look at recent history of drivers switching teams as a guide.

The first name that comes to mind, obviously, is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Most of you probably remember the thousands of news stories that surrounded his acrimonious departure from the team founded by his father, and the frustration shared by the driver and his fans in feeling that his stepmother wasn’t doing what was necessary to keep up. Being more popular than Jesus in NASCAR Nation, Junior could have gone anywhere and reasonably expect to run better. When he signed with Hendrick, analysts everywhere predicted multiple wins and very likely a championship or three. That didn’t seem unreasonable, with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson laying the competition to waste at the time. Certainly someone with Junior’s skills would put up similar numbers.

After two seasons with NASCAR’s top team, Junior has as many wins (one) as he did in his last two years with DEI. He actually had fewer top 5s in 2008-09 (12) than in 2006-07 (17). Other than his disastrous 2009 season, looking at his finishes in the standings you would generally think he was in a four year slump.

Today, Junior is seventh in the standings…right there with his fifth place finishes for DEI in 2004 and 2006.

Tony Stewart went to the opposite end of the expectations spectrum, leaving his multiple championship team at Joe Gibbs Racing to sign on with then Haas CNC Racing, a team that was barely keeping one car in the top 35. Just about every NASCAR writer out there, including yours truly, predicted “struggles” with his new team (which shows how much we know, as Tony would be the first to point out).

A look at the stat sheet and it’d be hard to believe that Smoke wasn’t still wheeling the Home Depot No. 20.

One year later Stewart had racked up four wins, his highest win total since 2006. Even more impressively, Smoke finished in the top 5 15 times. If the car’s number, owner, and colors hadn’t changed, you wouldn’t have even noticed. Well, that and the driver’s uncharacteristic newly gregarious demeanor. Come to think of it, only the racing ability has me convinced it’s still Stewart in the car.

Mark Martin finished runner-up in the standings four times driving for Roush Racing, then after a brief part-time stint with DEI/Ginn, finished runner-up again with Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. But more enlightening was that two year run with Ginn and then DEI. Martin scored five top 5s in 24 races in 2007, after seven top 5s in 36 races in 2006 with Roush. In 2008 he scored four top 5s in 24 races. Even driving for a team barely treading water, Martin was nearly as competitive as he had been in his better years at Roush.

Kyle Busch went from one top team to another top team and remained a top driver. Did he improve after joining up with Gibbs? Yes, but not as dramatically as it seemed in 2008. His explosion for eight wins in the first 22 events had plenty to do with a racing style that was very much checkers or wreckers as it had been. At Hendrick Motorsports in 2007, Kyle finished 30th or lower seven times. In 2008 he did so five times, two of them in the first two Chase races. It doesn’t sound like much, but one or two DNFs in the Chase will probably cost a driver a title.

Jamie McMurray was the big fish in the small pond at Chip Ganassi Racing, and it was widely believed he would turn into a whale following his move to Roush Racing, taking over Kurt Busch’s championship car. We know how that turned out. McMurray actually put up lesser numbers driving for Roush, despite notching a couple of plate track wins. And now reunited with Ganassi, he has already swiped a checkered flag at Daytona. But in general his numbers haven’t been very different. Maybe the guy is just more comfortable as an underdog.

Despite spending a number of years driving the best equipment in all of NASCAR, Casey Mears’ results remained mediocre at best.

Casey Mears did show some flashes of greatness driving for Rick Hendrick. In 2007 he scored his only Cup win at Charlotte, one of 10 top 10s that year. In the three years before with Chip Ganassi, Mears had nine, nine, and eight top 10s. Driving the No. 5 car in 2008, he finished in the top 10 six times before being let go and picked up by Childress, where he finished top 10 just four times. Mears’ points standing finishes since 2004: 22nd, 22nd, 14th, 15th, 20th, and 21st. Again, you wouldn’t even have known that he switched teams twice, let alone that he had gone from a second tier team to Hendrick Motorsports.

A driver’s fortunes are often more related to his team’s fortunes in general, making Penske drivers the one aberration to a general rule. Kurt Busch challenged for titles driving for Roush, and now at a rejuvenated Penske Racing he is challenging for titles again. Ryan Newman is one of few drivers to change teams and put up a significant improvement in performance, but no one expected his runs to actually improve after leaving a team that helped him win a Daytona 500 for a team that was fighting to make the race every week. But at the time Newman left, Penske as a whole was in a slump. In three years from 2006-08, only Busch made the Chase in 2007, and was a non-factor in the title hunt.

Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth had subpar seasons last year because Roush Fenway as a whole had a subpar season. Richard Childress Racing drivers similarly suffered, perhaps overwhelmed by running a fourth team, and Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer all failed to make the playoffs just one year after the three finished fourth, fifth, and sixth in the standings.

It’s actually pretty tough to come up with an example of a driver whose performance changed noticeably after switching teams. Even Bobby Labonte’s performance didn’t change much moving from Joe Gibbs to Petty Enterprises. Maybe Kyle Busch was motivated after a perceived slight from Hendrick to visit victory lane eight times in his next 22 races, but other than that, a driver who switches teams that aren’t so disparate in performance will generally perform about the same as he had been.

Not at all surprising in what is most assuredly a team sport. Perhaps what all of this means is that at the Cup level, for all of the Hendrick dominance, the top teams are actually rather evenly matched. If the driver is, say, 20% of the equation, then that is an important edge that will show on the racetrack. There’s not much difference between first and 15th. Not at this level.

We could probably expect at least a little improvement in performance when Kahne breaks from Richard Petty Motorsports, given that he’s moving from a floundering team to the best outfit in the business. But we probably shouldn’t expect much more than Kasey’s usual success…the occasional win or top 5 mixed in with some mediocre finishes and maybe more DNFs than a driver should have.

Or maybe he’ll be the exception and kick everyone’s ass. Danged if I know.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • I’m not sure Kevin Harvick’s post-race comment about the sponsor leaving while they’re winning was meant to be a dig at Shell. It sounded more to me like he was happy to see their relationship finish strong. As a car owner himself, I would think he would know better than to create ill will towards a company putting its name on a racecar.
  • Does anyone think that maybe this Gordon-Johnson feud is just a little bit for show? NASCAR desperately needs someone—anyone—to tangle with Johnson. I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be a little egging on happening, maybe Helton pulling Jeff aside and saying “you gonna let him cut you off like that?”
  • As much as I dread the plate races, I am equally looking forward to Richmond, especially for a Saturday night race. This is one track that, for the moment at least, is not in any considerable danger of losing a date, and one of few that deserves to have such status. And the driver matters again.

Contact Kurt Smith

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wcfan
04/29/2010 11:48 PM
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Thank you,
I have never understood all the love that Kasey gets as a DRIVER, he has always been a top 10-15, that is young, good looking and well spoken. This does not make him a great driver.
Do not forget Kevin Lepage, who was driving (quite well) for an underfunded team and signed with Roush and had little if any real improvement.

Stephen HOOD
04/30/2010 07:00 AM
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I think Kahne has had moments of brilliance followed by “what in the hell just happened.” Earnhardt Jr., Busch, Edwards, and Kahne have all had multiple win seasons followed by zilch. I think Kahne is a second tier driver in a sport with only three or four top tier drivers. I’d put Stewart, Gordon, and Johnson (and possibly Martin) in the top tier followed by the rest. Kahne would be in my A group of second tier with Busch, Busch, Burton, and Hamlin. B would be Edwards, Earnhardt, Harvick, and Kenseth. C would be Biffle, Montoya, and Bowyer. I keep waiting for Truex to break out and I believe Logano will prove to be a first or high second tier driver unless he’s already been spoiled.

I hope Kahne proves us all wrong, but my guess is you are right.

DansMom
04/30/2010 08:59 AM
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Your opening statement, the ability to lead a team, is paramount to qualify you as a valuable commodity in NASCAR.

Don’t forget that when Kahne had his break out year, that ride was fresh off of Bill Elliot driving the 9.

McMurray’s biggest success, following Sterling in the 40. (If you argue Daytona 500 win here, I hope you didn’t support Matt McLaughlin yesterday)

I think this transisiton will show what Kahne has to offer.

noel_w
04/30/2010 09:01 AM
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I agree with you Kurt. I don’t expect great things from Kahne. But based on Johnson’s performance in the Busch Series, I figured he would be a complete failure in Cup. I might have been wrong on that. LMAO
People that figured Junior would be dominant at Hendrick were trading on his popularity and NOT his statistics. Junior has never showed consistent front of the field finishes since leaving Busch behind. NO driver, regardless of poularity can win a championship with a win followed by three mid-20’s and then a top 5. That has been the path of Junior’s career.
However, the people claiming that Theresa didn’t do enough to keep DEI strong, are 1,000,000% correct. Do you think if Dale were alive today the company would be known as Earnhardt-Ganassi?
I think the Johnson-Gordon feud is more than a little contrived. I think that they are tired of people calling them boring, corporate racers. So they have decided to mix it up with each other. This way they can have a fair amount of control over how “physical” the feud gets.

DansMom
04/30/2010 10:47 AM
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Noel… when was the last time Junior had a win to go with his 3 mid-20’s and a top 5?… can I get fries with that too?

Carl D.
04/30/2010 01:35 PM
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Hendrick’s success has as much (or more) to do with the guys he hires as crew chiefs as it does about his drivers. Jeff Gordon had Ray Evernham, Jimmie Johnson has Chad Knaus. I don’t think either driver would be where they are today without their respective crew chiefs. Of course, Gordon and Johnson came to Hendrick as young drivers who needed to be nurtured along properly, while Kahne is already a veteran who will need a different kind of crew chief. No matter, he’ll sell a lot of caps and t-shirts, and after all, these days ain’t that what it’s all about?

Ellen
04/30/2010 05:01 PM
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I wonder how Kasey will fit in, going from the #1 driver his entire career, to no better than #3 when he finally does sit in a full-fledged Hendrick car.

Evernham’s cars were good early in Kasey’s career – so good in fact that Jeremy Mayfield made the Chase twice in its first 2 years, while Kasey didn’t. It wasn’t until they gave Kasey what had proven to be the best team there in 2006 that he finally squeaked into the Chase. He reminds me a lot of how Ryan Newman raced back in 2003 – all or nothing.

It will be interesting to see how he copes with not having the organization revolve around making him run well and look good.

DoninAjax
04/30/2010 07:20 PM
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DansMom
McMurray’s biggest success, following Sterling in the 40. (If you argue Daytona 500 win here, I hope you didn’t support Matt McLaughlin yesterday)

Kurt said: Our own Matt McLaughlin absolutely nailed it yesterday concerning restrictor plate races in his MPM2Nite column. I couldn’t have said it better.

Me either.

noel_w
05/01/2010 10:22 AM
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@DansMom: Junior’s early career was marked by exactly those style of finishes. But the statement wasn’t pointed only at him. Many drivers could be described here. Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, and Kasey Kahne come readily to mind.

I know from reading your posts across many stories that you consider yourself to be quite witty. What I see, is another example of a brain damaged person being able to sign in online.

By the way, my PERSONAL race library is approaching 1100 events. NASCAR, IndyCar, F1, ARCA are all represented. How big a library do you have?

mkrcr
05/01/2010 11:31 AM
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I gotta few books too.

Contact Kurt Smith