NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: Kasey Kahne Getting Wings for 2011

We’ve been hearing about it each race weekend since April 14th when the deal was originally announced: Rick Hendrick hired Kasey Kahne for 2011 but didn’t have a car for him to drive until 2012.

Mark Martin was repeatedly asked if he was going to step aside early. Hendrick was asked if he was going to buy another team and have Kahne drive there. Tony Stewart was asked about a third car. The question was even asked if Kahne would spend a year in the Trucks. When it was all said and done, Kahne was announced as a driver for Red Bull next year, behind the wheel of a Toyota.

Seriously?

There have been instances in the history of the sport where drivers that were competing for one manufacturer would temporarily jump into the car of another manufacturer. However, that would generally be a one-off ride or a fill-in until something else could be worked out. There have probably been a lot more instances where drivers were asked if they could jump in another car, but their contracts with a certain auto company prohibited them from doing so. But this appears to be the first time that a driver, under contract to a team fielding one make of car is going to drive for another team — for an entire season — with a different nameplate.

One thing is for certain, Hendrick is a man of his word. When he announced the deal for Kahne he said he’d find the best opportunity for him in 2011 while he waited for the No. 5 seat to open in 2012. But no one anticipated it would be with a rival automaker.

The question we’ll all get to hear for the next few weeks will be which of the Red Bull cars Kahne will be driving. Jay Frye, general manager for Red Bull Racing, said that a decision will be made on Scott Speed’s status for 2011 by the end of August. Speed’s performance has been below expectations behind the wheel of the No. 82 car, but he’s believed to be a darling of the higher ups at Red Bull corporate, so he may be given a longer leash.

That would leave Brian Vickers, who has been out of the car since May because of blood clots. Doctors won’t know until November if the treatment has been successful enough for him to get back behind the wheel when Daytona rolls around in February. If Vickers doesn’t get clearance then it would be an easy decision for Frye to put Kahne in the car for a year and let Vickers have another 12 months to get better. However, if he is cleared to drive, Frye is going to be in a difficult position. Vickers should be treated like any NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA or any other professional athlete in that you don’t lose your job to injury. If Red Bull cuts Vickers loose, they should be ashamed of themselves.

The other interesting aspect of this move is what it will do for Kahne’s career. Kahne is obviously a talent, having won 11 races during his seven year Cup career. He’s been driving for the same organization, under a few different names, for all seven years. He’s only driven for two crew chiefs during that same time period. Now he’s going to be working with a completely different team for one season, then heading to Hendrick to start it all over again.

It generally takes quite some time for a driver and crew chief to develop the chemistry to be a winning combination in racing and more often than not, it doesn’t work out. Check Matt Kenseth’s resume from this year and you’ll see no less than four different crew chiefs on top of the box. Jeff Gordon has still not been able to capture the same magic he had with Ray Evernham even though he was able to win a title with Robbie Loomis. Richard Childress has made more moves than Bobby Fischer over the last few years trying to find the magic for his teams to get back to the top of the mountain.

Kahne is now looking at a guaranteed crew chief change over the next two seasons unless his current crew chief, Kenny Francis, comes along to Red Bull, but it will more than likely be two chiefs in two years. That is not a recipe for success.

The truly curious part of this arrangement is that Red Bull has its own one-year contract with Kahne, apart from his 2012 Hendrick Motorsports agreement. But even though Frye maintained Hendrick isn’t paying him a dime, this unique relationship still comes tagged with a handful of questions over the next 12 months. Could Hendrick still give under-the-table assistance to Red Bull to see his employee succeed? Is there a conflict of interest arising with this agreement?

What happens if Kahne is leading the race at Richmond and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running second, sitting 10 points out of 12th? Will Kahne’s future allegiances overshadow his temporary, one-year partnership? This is a true Pandora’s box that could have tremendous ramifications throughout the garage. How willing is Toyota going to be to share secrets with Kahne when he’s a Hendrick employee? There are so many questions and there won’t be any answers until situations arise during the season.

NASCAR is continuing to struggle with credibility issues with driver fines for badmouthing the sanctioning body and mysterious debris cautions. If they are put into an awkward situation by this unique marriage, they are going to have to work some very crafty PR to ensure the credibility of their decisions and the sport are not compromised.

To say this situation is unique might be an understatement. If Kahne is able to have a successful run with Red Bull, we could very well see other owners begin signing drivers and putting them to work for other teams. We could very well eventually get to a point where the top four own everyone and just farm the drivers out to underling teams. That would not be a good development for the sport where there is already a perceived chasm between the haves and the have nots. It is going to make 2011 an unprecedented season to say the least and, as always, we’ll most likely see something we’ve never seen before.

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