Published April 14, 2010
You know folks, you wake up almost every day saying, "OK, what is going to happen next in this great big ol'soap opera we call NASCAR racing?" There's always something on the horizon. There is always something going on behind the scenes.
You have owners talking to different drivers. You have current sponsors looking at different teams. You have new sponsors lurking who might come into the sport. Inside the sport you hear all the rumors and most times you say, "Oh, that'll never happen." The thing we always say in our sport is, "Never say never," because like a lot of times with these rumors, they do happen.
Kasey Kahne is the latest rumor to become fact. I have known for quite some time that Kasey has been unhappy with the way things have been going over at Richard Petty Motorsports. Unfortunately, that organization has been in disarray. They switched ownership, company name and even car manufacturer. They've laid off folks and it's been in the news about them recently being in default on a $90 million loan.
So naturally there is a lot of turmoil, uncertainty and instability around that whole organization right now. When you have a driver of the caliber of Kasey Kahne and crew chief as talented as Kenny Francis, being uncertain about the company's future worries them.
I have seen Kasey at times where he was simply unbeatable. Charlotte Motor Speedway and some of the other 1.5-mile tracks come to mind. If you give his group equal equipment to what the front-running teams have, it's no surprise that those two can kick your butt.
All Kasey Kahne needs is some stability in the folks he drives for. When you are in your middle to late 20's and your early 30's, those, folks, are your most productive years as a driver. That's when you need to be capitalizing on what you have. You can't find yourself held back by an organization that can't provide you every opportunity to succeed.
This is one of those "been there, done that" moments for me. When I was driving for DiGard Racing in the late 70's, we were winning races and almost the '79 championship, but internally there were issues. In early 1980, Cale Yarbourough, who was driving for Junior Johnson, came to me to tell me he was leaving Junior and cutting back to a part-time schedule. He told me that Junior wanted to hire me and if I was smart, I would do whatever it took to go drive for Junior.
Let's face it, Junior Johnson was the best owner and had the best car in NASCAR at the time. I knew I had to get out of the situation I was in and get in that No. 11 car. I knew that would be a career-defining move. History shows from that point forward with Junior, I went from being a guy that could win races to being a guy that won championships.
Kasey is in the exact same situation. He knows he needs to get out of the car he's in and get in one of those Hendrick Motorsports cars. It doesn't matter whether it's in one of the four in-house Hendrick cars or whether it's one of the satellite cars at Stewart-Haas Racing. Either would clearly be a better situation than he is in now.
You just have to imagine that seeing Ryan Newman win Saturday night at Phoenix helped seal his decision. He has seen Tony win in his first year as owner/driver. He saw both Stewart-Haas cars make the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Now he has seen Ryan win for the first time in only his second year at Stewart-Haas.
There are two things a driver wants and needs to be successful. He needs security in the owner and the organization and he needs to believe he can win a championship there. As a driver, sure you want to win races, but more important than all that is wearing a championship ring that they give you at the NASCAR banquet.
You can be a winning race car driver, but there are only a few championship race car drivers. You just know that's what Kasey is looking at. Trust me, Kasey clearly has the ability and desire. All he needs is the opportunity and I believe he can be one of the greatest drivers our sport has ever produced. He knows that. I know that and all his fans know that.
So it comes as no surprise, the announcement that he is moving on. He needs to be some place with considerably more security. What better place to land than with the best car owner in the sport right now, Rick Hendrick. Kasey has signed to drive the No. 5 car beginning in 2012 through 2015. Since Mark Martin is signed to drive the No. 5 car through 2011, then the only remaining question is where will Kasey be next year.
He can't drive another Hendrick car as they are at the NASCAR limit of four teams. Naturally the speculation is because they are currently under the NASCAR limit, that Kasey would drive a third Stewart-Haas entry for the 2011 season.
I am absolutely thrilled for Kasey. I hate to see a driver with Kasey's talent and ability not be able to capitalize on that. Getting in a Hendrick Motorsports car will be a career-defining move in Kasey Kahne's life.
I am excited to see what happens. The dynamics of this are huge because of the players involved. With a powerhouse player like Kasey Kahne coming on board, it's pretty easy to make it work. Once again, with his eye clearly on the future, owner Rick Hendrick has gone out and recruited clearly the most talented driver available in the sport. That's what makes Rick so good and how Hendrick Motorsports can continue to be the best organization in the sport.
The other interesting storyline to follow will be to see what happens with Budweiser. Are they going to stay with Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of this season? Will they go to another team? Will they follow Kasey, which would mark their return to Hendrick Motorsports?
That will be yet another piece of the puzzle to be worked out. Man the ol'puzzle sure has a lot of pieces to it. Trust me though, when all the pieces fall into place, it's going to be a pretty picture.