The Frontstretch: Kasey Kahne to Hendrick Motorsports — But Is It For Martin Or Earnhardt? by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday April 14, 2010

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ESPN reported Tuesday afternoon that Kasey Kahne has signed a multi-year agreement with Rick Hendrick, leaving Richard Petty Motorsports effective the end of the 2010 season. The announcement comes as quite a blow to RPM, who had been riding a wave of good fortune in recent weeks with Paul Menard’s improbable top-12 points performance and A.J. Allmendinger’s pole-winning run at Phoenix. It also comes on the heels of reports that RPM has defaulted on a $90 million loan and is in the midst of further debt restructuring.

But here’s one emotion no one from that team should be feeling tonight: shock. From as early as last year, Kahne had essentially put RPM on notice he wanted out.

“I got to the point where I’ve got one year left, and I want to do everything I can to do the best job I can for Richard Petty Motorsports in my final year, and it’s up to them what happens,” Kahne said last fall. “They do their thing, and I’ll do mine. All I can do is what I can do.”

The 30-year-old has remained consistent on that position ever since, saying recently he’d make up his mind on his future by June. But it turns out in this case, Kahne decided to go the early decision route, choosing to join forces with what is unquestionably the premier operation in NASCAR – and possibly in all of motorsports.

While the exact details of the contract have not yet been released, and thus there seems to be some confusion as to the what, when, and where of the deal – Kahne will actually not be driving for HMS in 2011, but 2012. The report ESPN aired stated Kahne was leaving for Hendrick in 2011, however, moments later NASCAR.com issued a press release email stating he would not be driving a Hendrick Motorsports car until 2012.

That being said, a few questions and scenarios spring to mind. Chief among them are where Kahne goes for 2011, and what other drivers may be affected by this domino of dominoes falling nearly a year in advance?

The easy way out on that one is that something would be put together for Kahne to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing next season, joining former fellow USAC stars Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. That would make sense, but would also do little to dispel the notion that Stewart-Haas Racing is little more than a creative badge engineering of Hendrick Motorsports; the Pontiac Sunfire to the Chevy Cavalier of NASCAR superteams. While Stewart has expressed reluctance to expand his operation further for Kahne – or his buddy Kevin Harvick – things could very well change with adequate sponsorship, something that Kahne would have no trouble attracting.

After all, just look at his success with middle-aged moms in minivans from those Allstate commercials.

With Mark Martin’s contract winding down, Hendrick Motorsports made a bold pre-emptive move to ensure that Kasey Kahne would be under their umbrella, if not in the No. 5 car, in 2011.

Digging deeper, though, the prevailing assumption in Hendrick pulling the trigger is that Kahne was snapped up early as a suitable replacement for Mark Martin in the No. 5 Chevrolet. Martin, who will turn 52 in January, will be in the final year of a three-year contract in 2011. That extension was signed early last year following a remarkable start by his new team, which saw him win five events and finish second in the final points standings (to Jimmie Johnson) for the fifth time in his storied career.

Originally, Martin was going to drive a full 2009 season, with 26 races to follow in 2010, returning to the limited schedule he had enjoyed the previous two years. Martin has not given any indication to his future plans yet, and Rick Hendrick has pretty much let Martin dictate his own future, after hounding him to come back full-time and drive his cars in recent years. While Martin is signed through 2011, that is not to say that he would be opposed to seeking an extension past that time, sticking around a year or two to help out the boss should something happen with another one of their driver’s situations.

It wouldn’t be the first time Martin put off taking a break from the action and was pressed back into service. So while the general assumption is that Kahne will be in the No. 5 in 2012, there is another seat at Hendrick Motorsports that could very well become vacant by that date.

To say Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has struggled a bit during his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports — particularly the last couple of seasons — would be a bit of an understatement. So far in 2010, the No. 88 Chevrolet continues to lag noticeably behind the team cars of Johnson and Jeff Gordon as well as those of Martin, which are built alongside them. While a second-place finish at Daytona and a pole in Atlanta have been bright spots, the No. 88 still seems to be stuck as a 12th- to 15th-place car most weekends.

With the departure of his cousin, Tony Eury, Jr. as his crew chief, Earnhardt, Jr. has yet to display much consistency – or comfort level – at Hendrick Motorsports despite public comments to the contrary by himself, Rick Hendrick, and new crew chief Lance McGrew.

So considering the struggles Earnhardt, Jr. has endured, along with the constant criticism and critique of his performance the last few years, I don’t believe it would be much of a surprise if he were to leave such a star-studded team and drive for an operation where he would be the primary focus – much as he was at DEI during more prosperous times in the first half of the new millennium. Many scoff at that notion, claiming that Hendrick would never let a cash cow like Earnhardt, Jr. go, but who could have predicted that he would have also left the building that once had his name on it?

While Dale Jr. has continued to enjoy huge success off the track, he and his team’s performance behind the wheel may have him looking for a new home in the near future.

Not only that, but one does not have to look all that far to see somewhere else where Earnhardt, Jr. might fit in a bit more than he does now.

It is no secret that Kevin Harvick was looking to drive somewhere other than Richard Childress Racing late last year. A stunning turnaround in 2010 has Harvick fourth in points, bringing a contender to the track every weekend the first two months of the season. But his contract still expires in November, leaving no guarantees he’ll re-sign with Childress now that things appear to be headed in the right direction.

This scenario leaves a potential opening at RCR, with up to two more after 2011 (when both Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton’s contracts expire). Richard Childress also still has the rights to the No. 3 that Earnhardt, Jr.’s father made so famous in capturing six titles. You can connect the dots from here, but there are more than a few fans that would welcome the return of the No. 3 to the track with an Earnhardt at the wheel. Granted, in the past Earnhardt, Jr. has balked at the notion of running with his dad’s old number, but that was also the number that he won two Busch Grand National championships with in 1998 and ’99. Couple this scenario with his existing relationship with the Wrangler Jeans Co., and the nostalgic throwback possibilities are off the charts.

So while Earnhardt, Jr. is signed at Hendrick Motorsports through 2012, stranger things have happened, and there are potentials abounding at RCR – so HMS snagging Kahne a year early is a smart insurance policy.

And what about Martin? This is where I have to issue my standard disclaimer when discussing Martin’s recent past or future plans: He never said he was going to retire, only that he was pulling back from the grind of a full season.

He is still having the time of his life, in competitive cars, working with a crew chief who idolized him growing up, and very well could have a pair of wins already this season if not for a gouged Goodyear and a blind Biffle. Pick whatever analogy you want to assign to Martin; Rocky, The Terminator, the dismembered knight from Monty Python and The Holy Grail – he shows no signs of slowing down, nor has he expressed a desire to pack it in anytime soon.

So what might Martin do if the No. 5 is no longer in his future? There is one seat that right now appears to be open for 2012; and to a legion of fans who still have a wardrobe full of faded Valvoline – or Viagra – memorabilia, it is a familiar one.

David Ragan, current driver for the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford, is signed to drive the iconic No. 6 car through 2011. But after a promising 2008 season, Ragan has had little to show for his efforts on the Sprint Cup side of things, except for that last second slingshot at Talladega that saw him capture his first Nationwide Series win in 2009. He currently sits 28th in points, and was on the cusp of falling out of the top 35 in owner points before his 19th-place finish at Phoenix last Saturday. With the lucrative UPS sponsorship on the line for what was the original car for Roush’s NASCAR venture, might its original pilot return to the seat where his career was reborn in 1988?

While the circumstances surrounding Martin’s original departure from the machine that many still identify him with today for 19 seasons were muddy, to say the least, he has never appeared bitter or resentful towards Jack Roush. When I had the opportunity to interview Martin last year at Michigan prior to his win in the LifeLock 400, he smiled and spoke warmly of Roush, who was one of the first to greet him in Victory Lane following his first win in nearly four years at Phoenix last April. Roush has said that he should have been more involved in the discussions to help keep Martin involved in their Cup program, and Martin himself has often stated to “never to say never” in regards to what he might do in the future.

Granted, all of this is conjecture, theory, and wild accusation. It is hard to gauge where and when Kahne will actually end up at Hendrick Motorsports until an announcement is formally made. While it likely will be the No. 5 car, nothing is for certain just yet, as Hendrick Motorsports is about as buttoned down as any place you will find outside of Quantico when it comes to leaks or releasing information before the time and place of their choosing.

Whatever the ultimate plan ends up being, the signing of Kasey Kahne remains yet another coup for Hendrick Motorsports, who essentially has the market cornered on driver talent in the Sprint Cup Series. Kahne may well be headed for a brief stint at Stewart-Haas Racing in the meantime, but 2012 will see him in a Hendrick ride full-time, and likely back to the form that he displayed in 2006 that saw him capture six wins and six poles.

And that means a tragic blow, once again, in the Blue Oval office. For if there is any irony in all these moves, it is that Ford has once again lost the one driver it had originally tabbed to help break the dominance of Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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VaBlueGrass
04/14/2010 07:12 AM
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Who’s going to hire a driver for 1 year?

And Vito – you missed the BIG scenario. Gordon retires, Kahne (the previously-coined “next” Jeff Gordon) takes over the 24. Danica takes over for Martin part-time, and Kahne’s Budweiser sponsorship returns to Dale Jr. And everyone’s jacket’s, t’s, and hat’s get dusted off and return to prominance!

noel_w
04/14/2010 08:37 AM
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@VaBlueGrass:

Your scenario for Gordon’s retirement could be spot-on. I remember an interview he gave in the mid-90s, saying he couldn’t imagine driving the cars for twenty years. 2012 would be his 20th season. Danica will give up on NASCAR while still in the Nationwide series. She has NO talent for IndyCar and less for stock cars. Her experiment is because she had used the “I’ll go to NASCAR, if you don’t pay me more money,” tactic twice in the IndyCars. The IndyCar owners were prepared to let her go, she would have come back begging to drive for minimum wage. Now she looked dismal in 3 NASCAR starts, and is seriously off pace in the IndyCars. She doesn’t have the focus to make it in the stock car world. Don’t forget that Hendrick still holds a long-term option on Keselowski (if I’m not mistaken). That could put Kahne and Keselowski in the 5 and 88 and Jr could return to the Nationwide series and drive his own equipment while trying to figure out where it all went wrong.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
04/14/2010 09:21 AM
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Gorodn signed an extension that has in in the No. 24 through 2013 and possibly 2014, which is why I didn’t persue that angle. I can’t see him retiring in 2012 – besides, his back seems to be doing a lot better.

I thought Danica might split time with Mark at some point as well, but I think she needs to get some serious seat time and acclimate to stockcars before being plugged into one of the best cars in the business.

Stephen HOOD
04/14/2010 09:38 AM
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It seems to me that most people forget what makes Junior lucrative—cash. If you look at the Hendrick stable, Junior is funding the 88, the 5, and on some weekends the 24. It doesn’t matter if he runs 6th or 36th, he is bringing $$$ to HMS. Unlike Kyle Petty, who Junior is often compared with, Junior is an economic force that has expanded way beyond his father’s coattails. Junior may have been loved for being Dale Sr.‘s son; now, most fans love Junior ‘cause he’s Junior.

I don’t see Junior getting kicked to the curb by Hendrick, though I can see Junior saying, “where’s my championship” and hitting the road with sponsors in tow. I think the Jamie McMurray running @ JrMotorsports is intriguing. Are the lines of communication reopened and the possibility of ownership in Ganassi/Earnhardt a possibility? Maybe Theresa is finally willing to sell and Junior is willing to buy.

Speculation is fun “as the world turns.”

wcfan
04/14/2010 10:08 AM
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I have never understood all the love for Kasey, he has never shown me that he was a consistant top 10 driver. If the Casey he replaced was given the seat time this Kasey was given he could have won too.

DansMom
04/14/2010 10:49 AM
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JPM didn’t have serious seat time until he got to Cup. And his career is pretty solid at this point. As soon as he wins on an oval (i.e. when he gets to INDY in July) he’ll be considered a top tier driver.

Let’s recap, Hendrick has (through):
Jimmie Johnson (2015)
Jeff Gordon (2013)
Mark Martin (2011)
Dale Jr. (2012)
Keslowski (longterm – ?)
Kasey Kahne (2012 – ?)

So Kahne would have to slide into the 5 car in 2012. Unless Rick Hendrick knows something we don’t.

Hendrick 2014 Could look vastly different than today:
Johnson – 48
Keslowski – 24
Kahne – 5
???? – 88

Is this the beginning of the end for the Hendrick Dynasty?

VaBlueGrass
04/14/2010 10:56 AM
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Casey (Who?) Mears got YEARS in the 5 car and was never competative. Kasey (My Boy) Kahne had immediate success his rookie campaing. Do you not remember the drama of “where will Kahne score his first win” after he ran second all those races and got screwed by oil at Dover?

I like HOOD’s thoery of Junior starting his own team and taking the sponsorship with him, but remember – sponsors have contracts and relationships with teams too. Hence why Tony Stewart drives for Old Spice and not Home Depot anymore.

On a side note – how finny would it be to see Tony Stewart shirtless riding a horse backwards???

VolcanoNacho
04/14/2010 11:02 AM
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I think Danica will pick up a full time ride in Cup but I seriously doubt it will be with Hendrick. I think that, as we have pointed out, Hendrick will have too many drivers to stay under the 4 car cap.

Perhaps we get a Hendrick spin off team? Let Gordon retire from racing and run it? Oooohhhh.

DoninAjax
04/14/2010 11:10 AM
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When does Mark Martin’s son start driving for Hendrick?

Robin
04/14/2010 11:20 AM
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IMO, if Hendrick wants Kahne in 2011, Martin will leave Hendrick in 2011 because that’s just the type of person he is.

Bill B
04/14/2010 12:28 PM
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Hmm, reading these comments is a bit like reading comments on the tv show “LOST”. Lots of wild theories in the absence of many facts.

I especially like the comment from noel-w referencing an interview from 15 years ago and dismissing more recent interviews in which Gordon stated he plans to run another 4 or 5 years.
Of course anything is possible.

Kevin
04/14/2010 01:10 PM
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VaBlueGrass: Mears was actually only in the #5 car for 1 year (2008). He was in the #25 Hendrick car the year before (2007). In all, he spent just 2 years at Hendrick and had a major team/crew chief change in the middle. In fact, Casey’s entire Cup career has featured one change after another. I think he’s a better driver than we’ve seen, but he needs to have something constant for a while in order to show his abilities. Despite all that, he still finished a solid 15th in points in 2007.

janice
04/14/2010 01:28 PM
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from what i’ve read, martin’s son wants nothing to do with racing. when he was younger, he was being groomed for next star rousch racer. i think matt martin got burned out on racing at such a young age, as he raced when he was 10 or 11 in a series.

wcfan
04/14/2010 02:11 PM
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I was talking about Casey Atwood who drove for Evernham his first year as an owner. He should have won at Homestead as a rookie, but for a late race caution, him and the team were really starting to jell, when he was replaced by Kasey Kahne, who did not have immediate success.

wcfan
04/14/2010 02:15 PM
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Sorry I was wrong Casey Atwood was replaced by Jeremey Mayfield, and Kasey Kahne replaced Bill Elliot.

j21black
04/14/2010 02:15 PM
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I believe the Casey WCFAN is referring to is Casey Atwood, not Casey Mears. My guess is many of you do not remember who Casey Atwood is.

I also read an announcement on Jayski’s today stating Kasey would replace Mark in the 5 in 2012 in “ “ from Rick Henderick.

I hope he dumps Jr. Puts Kasey in the 88, and signs Mark to a lifetime contract. When Mark is done, so I am with Nascar.

DansMom
04/14/2010 04:00 PM
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Casey Atwood hasn’t been relevant this NASCAR era.

Neither has Casey Mears, actually.

This is also the Rick Hendrick who claimed he had NO PLANS to sign Dale Jr. because his “stable was full.” So I wouldn’t cash they check too premature.

LDB
04/14/2010 07:07 PM
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This is one of the nuttiest articles I have ever read. Hendrick is not going to let Junior go no matter what. There are too many dollars there to let them fly away. Additionally, Junior drove the number 8 car in the Busch series when he won his championships.

wingcars6970
04/14/2010 07:25 PM
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I still like the Ganassi/DEI (Daddy’s old company with a piece of the pie) or RCR angle for Junior.

Overra88ted
04/14/2010 07:37 PM
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Looks like the highly overpaid Henrick test team driver, Dale Jr., will have a busy summer doing R&D under race conditions, building a data base of info for the 2011 driver of the #88 BUD Chevy, Kasey Kahne.

J.J.
04/14/2010 07:44 PM
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Well, Kahne never really specified <i><b>which</b></i> June, did he? Everyone just assumed he meant by<i>this</i> June he’d make up his mind where he’d be going. I think the writing was on the wall last year…

I’m most intrigued by that 2011 year. Let’s say Kahne goes to SHR for a year. How would that benefit SHR in any way? Unless Kahn brings his sponsorship with him to SHR and it stays with SHR when Kahne leaves to take over the 5 car in 2012, then there’s no real upside to the deal from a financial standpoint (unless, of course, there’s money changing hands which allows for some sort of sub-sponsorship—and offshoot Budweiser product maybe—that’ll stay with SHR long term. If that isn’t the deal, and Budweiser stays with SHR they could (after Kahne leaves for Hendrick) at least have sponsorship money to attract an up and coming driver to their Cup team or even an established star. If the sponsor goes where the driver goes, what good does that do SHR? And will Budweiser stay with Kahne or go to Earnhardt at Hendrick—who had such a long association with them?

And speaking of which, what does the Kahne thing do for to Harvick’s situation—he’s the one most mentioned to leave RCR for SHR? What will he do now? I think Kahne’s switch to Hendrick changes everything, but not that way people think it will.

Like Formula 1, there’s no such thing as “Co-number 1’s,” everybody else on the team fights for second place. How’s it going to sit with Jr and Gordon if Kahne is the # 2? I’m guessing not very well. I’ll go on record now as saying that Kahne will have a Mark Martin year (his good year with Hendrick) in that 5 car his first year, then drop off and become ordinary again.

This deal benefits Hendrick, but I’m not so sure it helps anyone else in the Hendrick “family.”

This signing sure dashes the hopes of Keselowski ever coming back to Hendrick (as some have speculated). And it also limits the hopes of anyone in the Busch series moving into quality rides in Cup…

I’m not totally convinced that this deal is as good a deal as it looks on paper.

Richard Petersen
04/14/2010 07:45 PM
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See, I was totally right about Kasey switching to Hendrick Motorsports. I’ve been telling everyone, but they never listened.

I also said that Dale Jr will be going to Richard Childress Racing too. That is where Dale needed to be in the first place. Every time I see JR, I think to myself why is he running like 20th and his three teammates are 1, 2, 3? I hope to god that Dale Jr leave Hendrick Motorsports. Then once he does, Harvick will join his buddy at Stewart Haas Racing, that would leave the seat open for Brad Keselowski to jump to Hendrick Motorsports with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Kasey Kahne, and with the #12 seat open at Penske, they will grab Justin Alligar from the Nationwide side.

wingcars6970
04/14/2010 07:51 PM
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J.J. said, “Let’s say Kahne goes to SHR for a year. How would that benefit SHR in any way?

It would benefit Hendrick so that is all that needs to be said. SHR is Hendrick to an extent and SHR is not going to bite the hand that feeds them.

Marybeth
04/14/2010 07:52 PM
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@Stephen HOOD, We think along the same lines, RCR or EGR would be fine. I do hope that Kasey gets the #25 next year. :) What I have not understood is Jr. ran great with “Pops” as cc. Pops stepped back and Eury Jr. took on cc alone. They faltered and Pops did not step back in and bring them back to the top and Pops yelled at Jr. for leaving DEI, it would take away their money. Now Pops works for JR Motorsports. It is Jr. who brings the money in. They could bring in a lot more money if Pops were back on Jr.‘s pit box & Jr. went back to winning. But what do I know…? I would be happy with Jr. back in the #8, if they can work that out. Time has a way of changing perspective. :)

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
04/14/2010 08:14 PM
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LDB

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. drove the No. 3 to win his Championships; the No. 8 cars were driven by Martin Truex, Jr.

http://www.nascarick.com/sambass19.gif

VolcanoNacho
04/15/2010 09:48 AM
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@Richard:
Dale Jr rides 20th while his teammates run top 5 because his teammates are top 5 calibur drivers and Jr is not. I thought everyone had figured that out by now.
Riddle me this…if old man river mark martin can win with hendrick equipment, Why cant jr?

Steve
04/15/2010 01:59 PM
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As long as Jr is a cash cow, regardless of how bad he runs, he will not be released by Hendrick.

I see Kahne signing with SHR for one season to run a 3rd car and to remain under the Hendrick umbrella. Then he goes to the 5 car in 2012.

Gordon retiring is an interesting thought. Although, I think Jeff will still be racing past 2012

Richard Petersen
04/15/2010 08:09 PM
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@VolcanoNacho:
Maybe because they are giving Mark Martin something that they are not giving JR??
See, This is why I don’t like seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr with Hendrick Motorsports. When he was driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. They build the cars all in one roof and they share information and it was much better for Earnhardt to understand a lot more. With Hendrick Motorsports, they have 2 cars in one garage and the other 2 in another like they are 2 totally different teams. What does 2 guys with no championships have against the other 2 who have 4 championships?? I Cannot wait for Dale Jr to head to RCR where they all work together as one freakin’ team!!

noel_w
04/15/2010 09:39 PM
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Jr has NEVER been a consistent front runner in the Cup series. He was not only consistent, but dominant in the (then) Busch series. Consistently leading laps at a restrictor plate track, does NOT qualify as consistency. His entire cup career has been marked by wins, with stretches of 15-25th place finishes between. That is why he has failed to qualify for the chase, more often than he has made the chase.

@Bill B: I didn’t say Gordon would retire. I said he could retire. My referencing the old interview, was only meant to illustrate the point that Gordon will not still be driving at 52, like Martin is. Anyway you look at it, Gordon is much closer to retirement, than even the mid-point of his career. And as he rapidly approaches the 10th attempt at his “drive for 5,” I think the odds go up that he retires sooner rather than later to enjoy his family and money.

@Vito: Hendrick signed Gordon to a lifetime contract 12 or so years ago. I’m not sure how many contract extensions are required on a lifetime contract. When DuPont re-upped, the announcement may have been that Gordon will be the driver, but I doubt DuPont or Hendrick would do anything but wish Gordon good luck if he decided to retire tomorrow. That is not meant to say he will retire before the next 5 seasons are over, but who would stand in his way if he chose to?

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
04/15/2010 10:58 PM
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Noel –

Gordon has a lifetime contract with Hendrick, however he committed to drive the 24 through 2013, with the hopes of sticking around through 2014. Rick Hendrick confirmed this back in November.

I am not sold on it being an absolute to put Kahne in the No. 5 in 2012. I find it unlikely that Gordon will retire anytime before 2013, JJ isn’t going anywhere – I still think the biggest wildcard is Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

VolcanoNacho
04/16/2010 11:18 AM
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@Richard:
So let me get this straight, Hendrick Motor Sports is purposefully giving JR bad equipment? Or at least lower quality equipment?

Im not a doctor, but what financial sense does that make? Hendrick pays Jr all this money but they dont want him to win? They are intentionally screwing him because they Fill in the blank. No, really, fill in the blank, because I cant think of one reason why they would do it.

And how does this “scenerio” apply to stewart/haas racing, which buys equipment from Hendrick? They seem to be doing just fine and their garages arent even in the same building.

Im really tired of the equipment excuse Jr fans use. One of these days they will accept that he just isnt a Jimmy/Jeff/Tony calibur driver. One day…

Richard Petersen
04/17/2010 02:54 PM
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@VolcanoNacho:
Your right, Dale Jr is simply not Hendrick material. Everyone can see it, they just want to say each week that it will be Dale Jr’s week. I for one cannot wait to see him leave this annoying team that everyone calls Hendrick Motorsports.

to fill in the black I would have to say that They only want the name and the money that comes with Dale Jr

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