Tom Bowles
Wednesday April 14th, 2010

Mr. Hendrick, this Kahne's for you.

Kasey Kahne shocked the NASCAR world Tuesday with the news that Budweiser's marquee driver is headed to the racing equivalent of the New York Yankees, agreeing to drive for Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. Just 30, with 21-year-old looks, Kahne's the golden egg, a potential marketing and racing superstar who headlined a 2011 free agent class that included just a handful of A-list drivers. One of Ford's few hot young talents, he and Carl Edwards were the only drivers 30 or younger with a Sprint Cup victory to their credit.

So how did the Blue Oval crowd lose one of its prized "young guns?" The ugly truth is they never had a ghost of a chance to keep him. Instead, insiders claim Kahne's move to the sport's Chevy powerhouse fulfilled a longstanding wish to get even. Apparently, the veteran's hatred never faded from an awkward 2003 divorce from Ford to drive the No. 9 Cup car for Ray Evernham. Under a development contract with Ford at the time, a lawsuit had to be filed and settled out of court -- hitting Kahne hard in the wallet -- just so he could make the switch to Dodge.

He's been wheeling the No. 9 car ever since, although its ownership turned just as shady as Tiger Woods' cell phone records in recent years. Evernham was bought out in 2007 by George Gillett, who then merged with Richard Petty at the beginning of 2009, leaving Evernham a minority owner in the newly-named Richard Petty Motorsports. As if that wasn't confusing enough, the program merged a third time at the end of last season, swallowing up the old Yates Racing operation while making a full-time transition to Ford.

That return to Ford, combined with his car's shaky financial future led to the final straw for Kahne at RPM. Yet even with his current ride crumbling, sources say Jack Roush was on the horn to keep Kahne in a Ford any way he could, making a play to put him in the No. 6 UPS Ford for 2011 in a move that would unseat the struggling David Ragan. In the end, though, Kahne's feelings for Ford remained unchanged in a way similar to how Tony Stewart was dissatisfied with Joe Gibbs Racing's switch to Toyota in 2008. Six months later, Stewart was on his way out the door, ironically headed to the open arms of Hendrick in the same way Kahne's headed there now.

What will Kahne drive in the Hendrick stable? Chances are none of the team's four cars in 2011. Sources confirmed Mark Martin would continue to drive full-time next year, while Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon are signed to long-term deals. That likely puts Kahne on the "B" team, driving a third Stewart-Haas Chevy as a teammate to good friend Stewart and Ryan Newman until Martin gives way to Kahne in 2012.

For months, speculation has centered on Danica Patrick being groomed for that No. 5 ride, her partnership with GoDaddy pimping out her NASCAR future. But don't get the wrong impression from this deal; just because Kahne joined the party late doesn't mean the girl gets kicked out of the house. Patrick's Nationwide schedule remains on track for 2010 and beyond, with a move to Cup still possible in 2012. When that happens, Hendrick will find a place for her, perhaps in an SHR stable she's already visited a handful of times within the last year.

Looking ahead, there are now three levels in NASCAR: poor, rich, and Hendrick. Even if Bud doesn't sign with their program, Kahne's a marketing machine; his boyish good looks leaving him one of the sport's most popular drivers with female fans. Partnered with powerhouse companies like Allstate, McDonald's, and Pepsi/Mountain Dew throughout his career, he's a sponsor's dream who'll attract millions more into Hendrick's seemingly unlimited bank account. Most importantly, if Earnhardt keeps struggling and winds up leaving next season, they've got great insurance to swing behind the wheel of the No. 88 (and who knows; maybe in that scenario, Martin will unretire for the 4,677th time).

The bottom line is the Yankees have struck again, and with Kevin Harvick rumored to join the Stewart-Haas camp next year Hendrick could have eight fully-supported, A-level teams in 2011. Can NASCAR do anything to stop them? Considering they're already mocking the sport's four-team rule with the SHR partnership -- much to everyone's chagrin -- the answer right now is "probably not." Finding a way to induce parity in this environment has suddenly become one of the sport's big challenges.

As for Richard Petty Motorsports, their short and long-term prognoses look bleak. Kahne's departure leaves them with two marginal drivers (A.J. Allmendinger and Elliott Sadler) along with a family-funded package in Paul Menard that could bolt at any time. The company's been in default on a $90 million loan, and sources indicated Tuesday financial problems run rampant within the organization. Note that some of Allmendinger's sponsors (Valvoline, for example) are Roush hand-me-downs, and former driver Reed Sorenson was asked to work for free at the Cup level in order to save money last year. It's becoming increasingly clear RPM may not last beyond this season unless another investor steps in to help; in fact, more than one source suggested Kahne pushed a contract now to maximize his value, with the possibility of his entire team going under sometime within the next six months.

The driver will certainly have a lot of growing up to do at Hendrick; he's been paired with crew chief Kenny Francis for years and the quiet, unassuming vet will have major changes thrown his way ala Earnhardt in 2008. But considering every Hendrick-supported car has won a race within the last two seasons, the chance for Kahne to realize his future potential remains high. Remember, Kahne won six races back in 2006 and came within a few bad breaks of taking Johnson's first title for himself.

Can Kahne become Johnson's chief rival at Hendrick? Probably not. But he'll win races, be freed of his enemies and enjoy unprecedented job security. Sometimes, after being surrounded by chaos for years all you want is to slam the door, put it all behind you, and start over.

That's exactly what Kahne has done with this move; but the earthquake he caused won't stop shaking in NASCAR for a long time to come.

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