As the dust settles from Kasey Kahne'sdealwith Hendrick, it's time to take a look at the aftermath of this Silly Season surprise. It's easy to chat about how the move affects Kahne personally, but the truth is deals of this magnitude shake up far more than the driver signing a contract.
So who's having a tall glass of Budweiser in Kahne's honor and who's switching to Miller Lite? Read below for a list of winners and losers impacted by this latest power shift:
WINNER:A.J. Allmendinger. Just one week after winning the pole in Phoenix, the doorbell has rung on the 'Dinger's path to future success. Kahne's impending departure leaves him as the only driver of the three remaining at Richard Petty Motorsports to own a podium finish since October 2008. In fact, Elliott Sadler hasn't finished top 3 or higher since Bristol in March 2005! So with Sadler and Paul Menard struggling to stay relevant, the open-wheel convert is suddenly Petty's last and best hope to stay in business in 2011. Can he do it? The financial problems may be too much to overcome, but considering Jack Roush's long-running desire to get a "B" team running any way he can, expect the best resources and the best equipment to be poured into the No. 43. Worst-case scenario, if RPM folds the 'Dinger should earn enough solid finishes to get himself a ride somewhere else.
WINNER:Tony Stewart. It's no secret Stewart-Haas was planning on expansion for 2011. In fact, they're already loaning out a third pit crew (to TRG Motorsports' No. 71) to ease the transition this offseason. What "perfect timing" in light of Hendrick's "indecision" as to where to place Kahne for 2011. An official announcement will be made within the next 90 days, but Hendrick confirms the veteran will drive a Chevy as he has a one-year "waiting period" before replacing Mark Martin in the No. 5 for 2012.
Fellow Chevy team. SHR looking to expand. Hendrick gives SHR engines, chassis, information and free massages on Tuesdays. I think I might know where Kahne ends up; and it's a coup for Stewart, who's already good friends with the former Sprint Car veteran, making him a perfect fit within the SHR dynamic. Not only could the trio put all three cars in the Chase next year, but when Kahne leaves in 2012, Stewart's got a team up and running for his next possible "cash cow:" Danica Patrick.
Yes, that's right; the IndyCar diva should be primed and ready to bolt for NASCAR by then, with the long-term future of her series in doubt. And with Earnhardt's own future uncertain (we'll get to that in a minute), she's more likely to land with an experienced team like SHR than be the guinea pig for JR Motorsports making their jump up to Cup.
WINNER: Chevrolet. This time one year ago, Chevy's very presence in the Sprint Cup Series was in question. Bankruptcy protection cost teams like Richard Childress millions of dollars, forcing others to weigh their options on the off chance GM went under for good. Now? They're bouncing back off the track, and haven't skipped a beat on it, marching towards their eighth straight manufacturer's title while poaching one of Ford's top talents. Looking ahead, Chevy's got the most full-time teams and left Ford with just one under-35 driver with guaranteed superstar potential (Carl Edwards). Unless another rival ponies up millions to compete, it's clear the Bowtie Brigade will stay on top of the heap for years to come.
WINNER: David Ragan. Ragan has had a second straight awful season driving the No. 6 UPS Ford, without a top 15 finish, while falling to 28th in the points. But with Kahne jumping ship, the 25-year-old is suddenly in a much better position to keep his job. With Kevin Harvick and David Reutimann certain "no's" for Roush, there are no experienced talents available to knock Ragan out of his seat. Add in Roush's development driver struggles (Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Colin Braun are outside the top 30 in Nationwide points), all signs point to Ragan having several months to turn this around. Roush now has no choice but to take a flyer and hope his "young gun" turns things around by the end of 2011.
NEUTRAL: Brad Keselowski. Remember the cryptic comments by Hendrick last August? After Keselowski got signed by Penske, an almost defiant car owner said, "He'll always be close enough for me to get him and bring him back."
Now, compare that to what was said yesterday when asked about the future of Hendrick driver changes: "I'll probably retire before I need anyone else." Considering the status of Hendrick driver contracts, that's probably true unless Earnhardt leaves or Gordon retires earlier than expected.
Is that a bad thing for Keselowski? Probably not. He's not a great fit for the Hendrick mold and would be fifth, maybe sixth on the totem pole there. At Penske, he gets to build a winner over the long-term and use the secrets he learned while driving for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. against HMS.
LOSER: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. NASCAR's Most Popular Driver may rake in millions off the track, but this move hurts his ability to survive on it. Lost in a sea of Hendrick A-list stars, Earnhardt must now deal with Kahne, who enters the No. 5 car alongside him with more wins since 2006 (10 versus two for Earnhardt) and greater potential. Short-term, the move also means expansion under the HMS umbrella in the form of Kahne landing somewhere for 2011 and needing additional support. This "spread the wealth" environment makes it harder to give a little TLC to the No. 88, leaving Earnhardt far from the center of attention he was when with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Considering how far they remain behind the success of their teammates, that can't be a good thing as "making Earnhardt a championship contender under any circumstances" takes a back seat once again.
So will Earnhardt break contract and jump ship to go somewhere else? If it happens, Hendrick won't pull the trigger; he's making too much off souvenir sales. But another year of struggles for Little E might make places like Childress or having another go at buying the old DEI operation (now Earnhardt Ganassi) more appealing.
LOSER: Alan Gustafson. Mark Martin's crew chief has been lauded for the No. 5's consistent success. But with Kahne's arrival and Martin's impending departure in 2012, he's got to be worried about his future beyond that. Kahne's made it clear he'd like to keep working with his longtime head wrench, Kenny Francis, and the uncertain future at RPM makes it likely he'll make the jump. That doesn't mean Gustafson gets dumped, but he could be in a position similar to Darian Grubb a few years ago: an amazing talent at Hendrick with no room at the top to showcase it.
LOSER: Kevin Harvick. With Kahne's signing, Harvick moves to the top of potential free agents for 2011. But that's a small consolation after his rumored landing place (Stewart-Haas Racing) is likely about to take on Kahne. Would SHR expand from two to four cars in just one season? It's possible, though not probable, leaving Harvick in an awkward spot if that doesn't happen. Could he be forced to re-sign with Childress despite the fact those two still have a chilly relationship? Or will he bite the bullet and move his self-owned Nationwide team up to Cup? With neither Roush nor Gibbs a good fit for Harvick, his options just got smaller before Silly Season even ramps up to full swing.
LOSER: Ford. As noted above, they've lost one of their top "young gun" talents in Kahne and don't have many in the pipeline to replace him. Considering two of their top drivers are getting up in age (Biffle is 40, Kenseth 38), they're going to need to take that extra money thrown at the wind tunnel and use it to poach talent from elsewhere.
LOSER: NASCAR Officials and Purists. Hendrick insisted Wednesday a Kahne-to-Stewart-Haas scenario wouldn't violate the sport's four-team rule, saying, "I don't have ownership in that team." Yet isn't giving engines, chassis, information sharing and holding hands at the racetrack the same thing? Yes, Hendrick doesn't have his name on top of the door at SHR, but it's hard for the casual observer to note a difference between the two organizations.
NASCAR released a weak statement Thursday, claiming, "Based on conversations with Hendrick Motorsports, the company has a clear understanding of the multi-car rule and will abide by it. NASCAR will ensure that the rule is followed, as it has with other teams with similar circumstances." In other words, they're wussing out, allowing more power and cars to consolidate into the hands of a few.
Let's stop and think for a minute. If you're a new car owner looking to get into the sport, how in the world do you compete against the Hendrick / Stewart-Haas powerhouse? Hendrick claims the answer is, "to hire good people," but to buy the engines, chassis and equipment those people can work with now takes millions upon millions. The business model for aspiring new owners in the sport is now broken; and when the economy recovers, you can only shut people out for so long before their frustration builds into making an alternative series of their own.