NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Kasey Kahne to Hendrick Motorsports – But for Martin or Earnhardt?

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 AJ 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 HMS; 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.

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 HMS that could very well become vacant by that date.

To say Dale Earnhardt Jr. has struggled a bit during his tenure at HMS – 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 Jimmie 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 HMS 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?

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 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 HMS 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 Greg 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 HMS until an announcement is formally made. While it likely will be the No. 5 car, nothing is for certain just yet, as HMS 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 HMS, 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.

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