NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding A Pretty Wheel: With Kasey Kahne’s Future Secure, Others in Doubt

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.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Kasey Kahne’s renewal with Hendrick could be negative for certain other drivers. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

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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kb

I am shocked, he has been less than subpar…I DO think it is because people think he is “cute” and sells “T-shirts”. Why else did Rick stay with then underperforming Jr. all those years..the surname, marketability and the ever important merchandise sales.

Dpt24

I think Chase will end up in a Stewart Haas car. I could see him in the 10, 14, or 41. Depending on what happens to Busch in the off season, the move to the 41 could be much sooner than anyone anticipated.

Sasquatch

Jeff Gordon is part-owner of the #48 team…. Maybe Hendrick splits into HMS and GMS. All of a sudden there’s room for four more drivers.

rg72

Does the contract specifically say that Kasey is under contract to run in the Sprint Cup series for Hendrick or just that he’s under contract with Hendrick in general? Two different things. What’s to say that Kahne struggles in 2015. Could they still put Chase in the 5 car in 2016 and push Kasey to the Xfinity Series? Now obviously I don’t see Kasey in the Xfinity series but could see this sparking a situation where this contract is bought out, making him a free agent. I just don’t see this announcement putting all the rumors to rest.

GinaV24

and we’ve all seen contract extensions end early, so just because it is for 3 years doesn’t mean anything at all these days. I agree with you, kb, it isn’t performance for Kahne, it is all about the sales & fans.

As for Elliott moving into Gordon’s seat, well, that has always been a possibility. I’d like to see Gordon hit that magic 100 plus number of wins. Of course I’d also like to see him win the crapshoot trophy, too. These days 100 plus wins seems to be the more likely possibility. However, I won’t be there to support Elliott if/when he drives the 24 car, I’m done with NASCAR when Gordon retires.

Mathan

Patrick could be out of SHR in 16 and Elliot in?

Bill W.

Sasquatch made a good point below. Last week I thought Hendrick stated that Chase would be entered in selected cup races next year. To do this I think Hendrick will start a cup team calling it Jr.’s team like the nationwide team is now.

Upstate24fan

Hendrick is smart guy, there has to be some master plan here. I’m guessing it involves Stewart-Haas, especially with Rex Stump moving over there. Here’s my wild theory, Danica is out after next year. Two full seasons in Cup and she can’t beat her boyfriend in points when he missed a race and SHR equipment is far superior in 2014. Chase will come in with NAPA to replace GoDaddy. Chase eventually heads over to Hendrick when a seat opens.

Also, there could always be an out in Kasey’s new contract that allows Hendrick to release him at anytime (buyout clause?) Very interesting situation. I just can’t think Hendrick would risk losing Chase to re-sign Kahne. There is a plan we don’t know about.

paltex

Tony retiring, Elliott at Stewart Haas.

Dan

The only way the Jr Motorsports team goes cup racing is if Dale Jr leaves Hendrick and drives for himself. Per Nascar rules, no one cannot own a Cup team and drive for another where the total of cars exceeds 4 amongst all parties (Hendrick 4, JRM 1 or 2). Dale Jr has said many times he would only consider a Cup team if he had a significant sponsor want to sign a long term deal.

As Chase is a rookie Hendrick can enter a 5th car in up to 7 races, after that he has to loan him out to a different team.

Jeff Gordon is listed as the “owner” for the 48 and has a partial stake in it, but its officially a Hendrick Motorsports team/car. Similar asmany other “Listed” owners like Haas in previous years listed his elderly mother as an owner. Or even Hendrick years ago had his elderly sick father, and at another time his elderly mother.

Jimmie is going nowhere. There is no grass that is greener in the Cup series. Hendrick is the place to be.

Tony isn’t going to retire yet so his seat isn’t open. Give it a few more years, maybe. Danica on the other hand, I can definitely see it opening if she doesn’t drastically improve.

I think Jeff sticks around another couple years. Being this dominant and winning will help him overcome his back issues. They say winning cures everything.

How about HScott Motorsports? Hendrick entered cars under the former owner Phoenix Racing for Keselowski a few years ago. The 09 had marked improvement when Hendrick had a driver in the seat (Winning), versus Phoenix Racings contracted drivers. HScott is a smaller sattelite HMS customer so the moving of a driver over there would be easy.

Or how about Hendrick somehow gets Nascar to do away with the 4 car max per team?

I agree with all, Hendrick knows now what the plan is. He is constantly looking 1-3 years down the road.

Rob

First of all, I am a Kasey fan and have been since his rookie year in ’04; needless to say I was excited to learn about his contract extension! A bit of irony has gone through my mind, moreso the second half of this past season. Kasey replaces Bill Elliott at Evernham and then Bill’s son replaces Kasey – glad that didn’t happen! As a team owner though, even though Kasey had a poor year (not of his own doing most of the time), how do you replace a driver who’s made the Chase all three years with the team and has done so well? Up until this year he was running as good if not better than Junior. Also money does talk. Kasey does bring in a fan base who spends. Also for that reason I don’t foresee Danica losing her ride. While slow, she is improving each year and does show some promise here & there. She also brings in a female fan base and A LOT of revenue. These days in NASCAR it’s tough to turn away sponsorship money.

Chase does show good potential and it’s tough to ignore that. The bottom line is none of us know what goes on “behind the scenes.” Plus look at the people or “family” involved with HMS. Ray Evernham was Gordon’s crew chief along with Kasey (and owner) and is still involved with HMS. The Elliott’s have been involved with HMS and Evernham also. Plus all four current drivers have the same demeanor which works well with HMS. I expect Chase will be part of HMS, but there are too many variables to know what is actually in the works.

Ronnie

Why is everyone pushing Kahne so hard to be kicked out. Jr sure aint no ace when it comes to driving in Nascar. How do yall know Jr don’t go sliding out the door. Became a Kahne fan when he took over for Bill Elliott and now he will be a great teammate to Chase Elliott who will take over for Gordon retiring or Jr getting the boot. That’s just my opinion. Kahne isn’t going anywhere and if yall read the article none of the current HMS drivers can start a team because they drive for a 4 car team.

Capt Spaulding

Damn, It’s Tuesday and NO Summer’s Mailbag….how will we survive. How should I think till next season………………………

Tim S.

Keep watch, Cap. Surely we’ll be lectured before too long.

JS

If it’s to good to be true… I’m not yet convinced that Elliot is the next Jimmy Johnson. He may be the next sliced bread. The whole thing with NAPA coming together with Hendrick, Elliot and Earnhart to dominate and shine just as NAPA was leaving the sport is fairy tailish. He may move to Cup and do very well or more likely will take the Earnhart Jr course of a very marketable, middle of the pack driver with a top notch ride and famous last name. What I’d like to see is Elliot to take the #1 ride and compete head to head with Larson. Dillon, in arguably better equipment, had his butt handed to him by Larson this year. As long as true talent can still take a driver to a top tier team, these offspring drivers will never run numbers of a Gordon or Johnson. Of course, I am usually wrong and he may be the next Dale Jarrett.

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