As of Wednesday, a lot of NASCAR Nation was looking at the future of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 team, nodding and winking at each other. Sure, Kasey Kahne was in the seat in 2014, and would be through 2015, but it was really just a matter of time. Time, and keeping the seat warm. With young Chase Elliott on a two-year Nationwide timetable and the clock ticking after his stellar rookie season which included three wins, and eighth-place average finish and, of course, the series title.
With Kahne’s contract up after 2015, it seemed to be just a matter of time until Elliott took over.
Until Thursday happened.
Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday (Nov. 20) that Kahne has signed a three-year extension on his contract. The 34-year-old Washington native will be behind the wheel of the No. 5 through 2018.
And suddenly, there are more questions than answers.
The first, of course, is why Hendrick would make the move to resign Kahne with Elliott in the wings, when Kahne has not performed to the standard of the other Hendrick drivers in his three-year tenure. The second? Where that leaves Elliott. The answer to that is also, in part, the answer to the first question: if there’s something in the works, it left the No. 5 available for Kahne.
Looking at the performance question first, there are two ways to look at Kahne’s numbers since joining HMS in 2012. On one hand, they’re numbers that a lot of drivers would envy. Over the last three seasons, Kahne has five wins, 26 top 5s, 44 top 10s and an average finish of 15.6. His top 5 total is just two fewer than 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick‘s total over the same time period. A lot of drivers don’t have five wins in the last three years.
But on the other hand, this is Hendrick Motorsports we’re talking about. Jimmie Johnson has three times as many wins over the last three seasons. Jeff Gordon has seven wins and 58 top 10s. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also has five wins, but he has 62 top 10s and his 11.9 average finish tops all HMS drivers in the last three seasons. Kahne’s numbers are good, but, well, not that kind of good.
Rest assured that the re-signing was not undertaken lightly, nor was it simply because Kahne is cherubically cute and sells a lot of t-shirts to the teeny-bopper set. So something else is in the works surrounding Elliott’s future. Hendrick isn’t going to want to risk holding up Elliott’s progression and losing him to another team as he did Brad Keselowski. By my calculations, that most likely means one of three things.
Perhaps most likely is that despite nearly winning his fifth title in 2014 and earning more points than any other driver through 36 races, Jeff Gordon is closer to retirement than it seems. Elliott has long been eyeballed as a possible replacement for the aging Gordon, though it was once thought he’d be in developmental series a bit longer. If Gordon, who has a lifetime contract with Hendrick, is planning to hang up his driving shoes after one more attempt at the fifth title that once seemed like a given.
Still, there are a number of reasons that Gordon’s retirement could be put off for a few more years if his bad back is up to the challenge: 13 of them to be exact. That’s the number of wins Gordon needs to tie David Pearson for second all-time with 105, and it’s an attainable number. That alone could be enough to keep Gordon in the seat for a few more seasons because 105 wins, once thought to be untouchable in the modern era, moves Gordon into bona fide legend status in the sport and firmly inserts him into the conversation about the best of all time.
Which leads to the second possibility. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hinted earlier this year that JR Motorsports could include a Cup operation in the future. Could that future be as soon as 2015?
Well, there’s a catch: under current NASCAR rules, Earnhardt can’t own a Cup team; he’s driving for a four-car team, which meets NASCAR’s current cap, and the rules state that he can’t start a team if he drives for another team operating at maximum capacity. So either NASCAR has to change the rules, or Earnhardt would have to drive for his own team. His contract with HMS runs through 2017. That’s not to say he couldn’t jump ship earlier, especially since a JRM Cup operation would likely be a Hendrick Satellite at the same level that Stewart-Haas Racing currently sits. Earnhardt hinted earlier in 2014 that he’d like to end his career driving for his own team; many assumed that the comment meant years down the road, but perhaps that was a smokescreen for plans which include a much more immediate future.
There is one other possibility for Elliott, though it’s a longshot at best. Hendrick Motorsports does have one driver not signed beyond 2015. That driver, though, is Jimmie Johnson, who has brought Hendrick six Cup titles in the last nine seasons along with 70 wins, second only to Gordon’s win total among active drivers. Johnson has shown no indication that he has any desire to leave the only Cup team he’s ever known, especially with the unfinished business of a seventh championship. Could he get an offer big enough to lure him away? It’s highly unlikely, and Johnson says he and Hendrick are working on a deal to extend his tenure. But the possibility can’t be completely discounted until a new deal is inked, either, no matter how remote of a possibility it is.
For Kasey Kahne, the three-year deal puts an end to months of speculation, but for Chase Elliott and the rest of Hendrick Motorsports, the questions are just beginning. When will there be answers? Probably not immediately, but the picture should clear in the coming months. And it’s likely that something big is going to go down.
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