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NASCAR 101: 5 Drivers Who Could Take Over for Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing

The latest Silly Season domino to fall occurred earlier today (Aug. 16), when Kasey Kahne announced he will step away from full-time NASCAR racing at the end of the 2018 season.

Kahne, 38, tweeted that racing full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2019 and beyond “was just something that I couldn’t commit to,” despite reportedly having an offer on the table to rejoin Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 next year. He wrote that he is looking to spend more time with his son Tanner and the teams he owns on the sprint car racing circuit.

With Kahne’s move from the No. 95, a team he joined at the start of 2018 after multiple seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, one of the sport’s chartered rides is officially open for 2019.

Rumors have persisted for multiple weeks that, even before Kahne’s announcement, he could be out of the car for 2019 in favor of another driver, likely a younger competitor ready to make the leap to the Cup Series but without the team at which to do it. Those rumors, however, never quite caught fire thanks to No. 95 team owner Bob Leavine’s statement that he wanted Kahne in the car again, coupled with Kahne’s age, which puts him among the elder spectrum of full-time Cup drivers but still many years below, say, Kevin Harvick (42).

Without Kahne at the steering wheel in 2019, who might step up to replace him? No one knows for sure just yet, but here are a few of the rumors and outright speculation.

1. Christopher Bell

Makes sense, right? Christopher Bell is looking to move up the racing ladder, but Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t have an opening for him at the Cup level with Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones seemingly locked into the team’s four full-time rides. The logic, however, was that Leavine Family Racing would switch from Chevrolet to Toyota in the off-season, thereby gaining JGR support that would allow Bell to take over the car for the time being — think Ty Dillon in Germain Racing’s No. 13 with its Richard Childress Racing help.

Well, not so fast. A few hours after Kahne’s announcement, Bob Pockrass tweeted that Bell is scheduled to run for the XFINITY Series championship once again for JGR in 2019.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean Bell is ruled out at the No. 95. Not only can plans change, but even if Bell remains with JGR full-time in XFINITY, there’s nothing saying he couldn’t also compete in Cup as the No. 95’s primary driver, since a good chunk of the XFINITY schedule is contested as companion events to Cup races. It wouldn’t be full-time, sure, but it would be an opportunity nonetheless to gain Bell important Cup car experience before an eventual run at the full circuit sometime in the 2020s.

2. Daniel Hemric

In other NASCAR news Thursday (it’s been… a day; a week, really), Daniel Hemric revealed that he is unsure of his plans for 2019 and is playing the field at the moment.

There are aspects of this that makes sense and others that don’t. On one hand, Hemric is a championship contender for Richard Childress Racing in the XFINITY Series and even ran a one-off Cup race for the team earlier this year, a distinction that’s more recently only been reserved for the Dillon brothers when it comes to RCR drivers pre-Cup. However, Hemric still has no wins in NASCAR national series, and while years ago that might not have played as much of a factor, it’s certainly more of an issue for a driver who lacks the built-in funding some of the younger drivers who’ve surpassed him possess.

Does that latter point exclude him from shifting to the No. 95? Maybe, maybe not. If LFR can continue to attract necessary funding for 2019, Hemric is the type of driver a smaller team can build around, a talented racer who may not win copiously (yet) but can keep the car out of trouble — think Michael McDowell, who drove for the team before its switch to Kahne. LFR could do better than Hemric, but it could also do a whole lot worse.

3. Jamie McMurray

There’s no guarantee that Jamie McMurray won’t be in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 next year; let’s get that out of the way from the start. But one of the prevalent Silly Season topics in the last week has been the No. 1 ride, which has been linked to Kurt Busch for 2019, according to multiple media reports. For their part, all parties involved have neither confirmed nor denied the rumor.

But let’s say Busch does indeed take over for McMurray. Where does he go? He doesn’t strike one as the type who’d step down to either the XFINITY or Camping World Truck series, given his age (42) and career wins (seven). Retirement doesn’t seem out of the question, but if his heart’s still in it, it’s unlikely he’d make an upward or even lateral move from CGR.

Enter LFR, which could benefit from a second straight year with a proven winner while it continues to establish itself in the series.

4. A Whole Slew of Drivers

When LFR first went full-time in the series, it fielded the No. 95 for both Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon, who split driving duties. This practice remains common in the XFINITY and Truck series, where there are restrictions on the amount of races a Cup competitor can drive, making for patchwork schedules among multiple drivers to get through the whole season. Not to say that or what LFR has done in the past with McDowell/Dillon is ultimate the best move it could make, but if it snagged some sort of factory support with a manufacturer that allowed it to have multiple drivers (probably younger) in the No. 95’s seat to gain experience throughout the year before possibly taking on one of said drivers full-time in the future, perhaps we could see something akin to Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 60 team in the XFINITY Series (albeit with better results, one would hope).

Heck, maybe that’s how Christopher Bell makes his Cup debut.

5. Kasey Kahne

Look, he just said he’s retiring from full-time competition. Didn’t say anything about not running some races here and there, perhaps even for his former team.

OK, totally unlikely, especially if LFR gets a full-time driver for 2019. Whatever.

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About Kevin Rutherford

Kevin Rutherford
Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

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4 comments

  1. Avatar

    Remember that Jamie McMurray has driven the 24 hours of Daytona on several occasions. Like you mentioned, I don’t see him stepping down to Xfinity or Truck, but I could definitely see him racing sports cars, especially since Ganassi owns a team in that series.

    • Avatar

      certainly would like to see that. jamie would do great there except the two fords have their drivers set. he could be the extra driver for daytona, sebring, and road atlanta. also extra driver for the long races in WEC. lemans, sebring and maybe fuji.

  2. Avatar

    I think the biggest part of the Kahne announcement is it didn’t say he was retiring. All he said is no longer going to run full time. I think it ends up the 95 team switches to Toyota during the off season. Kahne comes back and runs part of the season, and Bell runs a majority of the combo Cup/Xfinity races.
    I think Toyota would be fine with it. They keep Bell with their brand while getting him cup experience.

    Also think 2019 will be the make it or break season for Suarez. He is the weakest of the drivers in JGR. And if Bell does decent in the 95, he gets the 19 for 2020 then. (And maybe Suarez to the 95)

  3. Avatar

    Whoever Toyota wants….