This morning, Hendrick Motorsports has confirmed Kasey Kahne for a three-year extension through 2018. His contract had been set to expire at the end of 2015.
This is likely to be one of several contract-related stories you’ll soon hear or read about with Hendrick, in a year that has already featured several partner pieces of news (Nationwide upping with the 88 team, 3M moving to the 24 team).
First off, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is good on a multi-year deal. The 88 team likely will need to fill the races that were covered by the National Guard next season – the team hasn’t publicly confirmed its exit but did well earlier this year to prepare for the possibility, and this was before the National Guard issued its own statement of withdrawal – but other than that things should be good to go.
Jimmie Johnson is next to get sorted. “Six-time” is good through 2015, and you figure he would be next in line for an extension. The question you have with JJ is whether Hendrick would extend it to a lifetime-type contract as is currently the case with Jeff Gordon.
Which then brings us to Gordon, and where he fits in with Hendrick protege and Nationwide (now XFINITY Series) champion Chase Elliott, who’s only 18 but of course is destined to move up to Cup – eventually.
Gordon’s new 3M deal is locked in through 2017. Other partners including Axalta, Drive to End Hunger, Panasonic, and Pepsi are all part of the 24 team’s partner lineup.
The question really is how long Gordon wants to drive full-time, because the 24 car is earmarked for Elliott down the road. According to Gordon during a Twitter chat, that could be several years.
The car number doesn’t appear as though it would switch to the 9 – as Elliott has run in Nationwide/XFINITY – as Richard Petty Motorsports’ Sammy Johns shot down that notion when announcing Sam Hornish Jr. for next year and beyond.
So where can Elliott fit? He’ll run a full XFINITY season next year and try to do what has been done three times in the last 16 years: win back-to-back titles. Dale Jr. did that in 1998 and 1999, Martin Truex Jr. in 2004 and 2005 and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2011 and 2012 (maybe Elliott needs a Jr. in his name?). In each of those second seasons, Earnhardt, Truex and Stenhouse made their Cup debuts.
So it stands to reason you’ll see Elliott making his Cup race debut in 2015 – somewhere. Doug Duchardt, Hendrick GM, confirmed the likelihood of that on SIRIUS XM Radio.
Hendrick Motorsports added an extra part-time car since running Johnson for a couple of races in 2001 for Kyle Busch in 2004, and Brad Keselowski in 2008 and 2009.
If Elliott is ready to make the jump in 2016, as he should be, he’d replace Gordon in the 24 only if Gordon opts to leave on his own (the decision should be Gordon’s choice, not Hendrick’s).
Assuming Gordon stays past 2015 into 2016 as is likely, Elliott could be off-loaded into a Stewart-Haas Racing seat (SHR utilizes Hendrick engines and chassis), or another Hendrick/Chevrolet satellite team such as HScott Motorsports.
The other thing to consider too is the commercial side of the equation. NAPA is now out at the Cup level and hypothetically could move back in with Elliott. If NAPA comes in, then Hendrick would have to figure out a way to mix-and-match NAPA with its existing commercial partners on the 24. NAPA, traditionally, has run most if not all 36 races as a primary sponsor at the Cup level, rather than share with an existing primary partner.
It would likely be easier for NAPA to come in as a primary sponsor to another car to run the bulk of the schedule, rather than try to share the spotlight with the 24’s primaries.
The takeaway from today’s Kahne news though is that it doesn’t affect Elliott’s outlook as much as you might think.
Hendrick believes enough in Kahne long-term – at 34, he is nine years younger than Gordon, six younger than Earnhardt and five younger than Johnson – to invest in him knowing he will eventually have to prepare for the future by losing one of those three drivers in the next several years.
And that’s where Elliott still fits in. He’s still a part of the long-term plan for Hendrick Motorsports.
But his actual Hendrick Motorsports arrival date may have just been pushed back a year or two.