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Kahne moves to Hendrick Motorsports

21 April 2010

In the new, fun game of NASCAR monopoly, Hendrick Motorsports just built hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place with the addition of Kasey Kahne to the driver roster.

After Monday's rain-delayed Samsung Mobile 500, Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings by 108 points over Matt Kenseth, his closest pursuer. Johnson has won the past four Cup titles. Hendrick has claimed nine of the past 15 championships, dating to Jeff Gordon's first title in 1995.

The addition of Kahne will make Hendrick stronger, even though owner Rick Hendrick hasn't announced how he'll fit Kahne into his plans next year, given that he already has quality drivers for all four of his cars. The initial premise was that Kahne would spend 2011 “on loan” to another organization — Stewart-Haas Racing, perhaps — and replace Mark Martin in the No. 5 Chevrolet in 2012.

Nonetheless, Hendrick would have Johnson, Gordon, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne all under contract in 2011, concentrating an abundance of talent, star power and merchandising appeal under the control of a single owner.

That's a scary thought for the rest of the Cup garage. Jeff Burton sees it as a clear indication of owner Rick Hendrick's relentless commitment to excellence.

“Adding Kasey to the mix sends a clear signal to everyone in the sport that he, moving into the future, intends on winning championships,” Burton said. “It's an eye-opener. I know that every team in the garage wanted Kasey, and Hendrick ended up with him, and it is what it is.

“It's the same reason that Jeff Gordon went there, the same reason that Mark Martin went there, same reason that Jimmie Johnson went there, same reason Junior went there—because people believe that, right now, he gives them the best chance to win championships.”

Hendrick may have an embarrassment of riches at this point, but there is much that remains unsettled. Though Martin approached Kahne about driving for Hendrick in September, a story both drivers confirmed at Texas, news of Kahne's signing took almost everyone — including Martin — off guard. Clearly, it came before Hendrick, who is obligated to find Kahne a ride for next year, had settled the driver's status for 2011.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, an inseparable part of the equation that added up to four straight championships for Johnson, has not signed a contract extension with Hendrick. It's difficult to imagine a better situation could exist for Knaus, but he is a man who craves a challenge, and his market value has never been higher.

Similarly, Martin's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, is in a contract year. Martin's five wins and seven poles last year—not to mention constant praise from the driver—have elevated Gustafson's visibility and stature immeasurably.

Yes, there are loose ends, but the announcement of Kahne's signing may already have had a galvanizing effect on Hendrick's drivers.

In analyzing his decision to come to Hendrick, Kahne touted the quality of the equipment.

“You get in a car like that, and if you're not performing, then you're the problem,” Kahne said of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

Kahne's comment rang loudly in the TMS media center Friday. Perhaps it resonated with the No. 88 Hendrick team as well, given that Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose performance has lagged behind that of his prolific teammates, drove like a man possessed at Texas, leading 46 laps, finishing eighth and solidifying his position in the top 12 in the Cup standings.

“We have a lot to work on still,” Earnhardt said after the race. “We're a good team. We can be a great team, and we just have to keep working.”

Whether Kahne's signing had an effect, or whether it was simply the return to a rear spoiler at a downforce track, Earnhardt was up on the wheel.

If the addition of Kahne was an eye-opener, what might a resurgent Earnhardt be?


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