Hendrick Motorsports likes things neat and clean and organized. NASCAR’s top team works hard to avoid drama, and its way of doing business is a huge part of the organization’s success.
It’s fairly standard for Hendrick to tie its sponsors, drivers and crew chiefs into tidy packages of concurrent contracts.
That didn’t happen, though, last week when the team announced Farmers Insurance had signed a three-year extension of “its sponsorship of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.” There was no mention of the driver also getting a new deal tied to a sponsor that will be on the car through the 2017 season.
Kasey Kahne’s contract runs through 2015, about the same time Chase Elliott will be ready for a promotion from the driver development program to the big leagues. Hendrick Motorsports has got to put Elliott somewhere, and there’s no guarantee Jeff Gordon is going to smile his way into retirement and hand his seat over to Elliott. Gordon may be about to turn 43, but the four-time NASCAR champion is currently leading the Sprint Cup standings and has 11 top-10 finishes through 15 races.
It’s easy to read too much into Kahne being left out of the Farmers announcement, to turn a simple sponsorship extension into much ado about nothing.
But there are some obvious facts that make it hard not to wonder just how safe Kahne is with the organization:
— A seat eventually has to open for the 18-year-old Elliott, who has two wins and is thick in the Nationwide Series title race.
— The team eventually must put a plan together to replace Gordon, occupant of the No. 24 since the 1992 season finale.
— There could be a crop of free agent drivers coming available in the next few seasons, including Kyle Larson, a budding superstar that Hendrick could try to lure away from Chip Ganassi Racing. A matured Kyle Busch could be interested in returning to Hendrick, where he started his career, and Denny Hamlin has always been interested in being Gordon’s replacement.
— Most glaring, though, is Kahne’s performance: Four wins in 87 races dating to 2012. He was a career-best fourth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in that debut season with Hendrick, but he was 12th last year. Kahne is so far winless this season and is 19th in the standings. His teammates, Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., have combined for six victories, rank 1-2-3 in the standings and are all locked into the Chase.
Nobody at Hendrick Motorsports has given any indication Kahne is on the hot seat. But he’s not talking about a contract extension with management just yet, either.
“Mr. Hendrick is always trying to help me as a driver; as a person and he gives us every opportunity. So, I want to be there a long time,” Kahne said last week at Michigan International Speedway. “We still have a year-and-a-half before my deal is up. So I think (it’s about) performance, and sponsors that want to be part of them, and just getting our team back where it needs to be. We’ve struggled some this year for really no reason. We can’t have that. If we can get rid of some of those struggles, I would hope that I would be at Hendrick Motorsports for a long time.”
Kahne had a fifth-place finish Sunday at Michigan. It was only his second top-five of the season, but it came on a day that Hendrick Motorsports routed the field. Johnson won for the third time in three weeks, Gordon was sixth and Earnhardt seventh as all four HMS entries landed inside the top seven.
Asked after the race if his finish silenced his critics, Kahne was blunt.
“Probably not all of them,” he said. “And they probably don’t all need to be silenced after one good run. We were way too bad the first 14 or 15 races, and hopefully this will get us going and we can get strong from here and make some points up and get in the Chase.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick tried and failed to get Kahne into his cars early for the 2011 season. It landed him at Red Bull Racing to wait out the 2011 season. Although he won once for Red Bull and finished 14th in the standings, it was never before than a holding place until he could finally execute the Hendrick contract he’d signed almost two years earlier.
Amid much fanfare, he finally joined the organization. But it’s tough to shine at HMS, where Johnson has been the most dominant driver of the decade, Gordon is an icon and Earnhardt gets the lion’s share of the attention no matter what.
And Earnhardt is winning right now, which really makes Kahne lost in the shuffle.
He wants to stay at Hendrick and is ready to discuss a future with the organization.
“I don’t know when that date is, but I think we have a lot of really good things going on, and with a little bit of performance here and there, maybe it will come up sooner than later,” he said. “I would love to be there for a long time, so we will kind of have to see how that works out.”
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