Kasey Kahne. For months, Kahne's future remained in limbo after an April announcement he'd be replacing Mark Martin at Hendrick Motorsports ... in 2012. That's how desperately he wanted a change from Ford, coming full circle with the manufacturer after breaching contract to go drive for the No. 9 car (then a Dodge) in 2004. The second his soon-to-be-former team turned Blue Oval last November, Kahne's departure from Richard Petty Motorsports was sealed, and Hendrick seized the opportunity to pick up a man who made the Chase and won six races in a single season over the past four years.
The fairy-tale ending came with just one catch: Martin was set on finishing out his contract with Hendrick through 2011, leaving a difficult one-year window to fill, while achieving the goal of keeping Kahne competitive elsewhere. It wasn't easy, but the Red Bull Racing partnership equals mission accomplished for everyone. The 30-year-old slides into a team that won a race and made the Chase last season with Brian Vickers, pairing the talented driver with a program willing to offer a one-shot deal at success.
"They want to win," said Red Bull Racing GM Jay Frye when asked why his team would make this type of move, comparing him to the Vikings' selection of Brett Favre that nearly got them to the Super Bowl in the NFL last season. "[Kahne's] a proven winner."
That may be true, although Kahne doesn't quite have the trophy-toting credentials and charisma of Favre. But is it enough to bump this team up a notch? Probably. The first order of business will be bringing current RPM crew chief Kenny Francis over, a likely scenario considering the outright implosion that's occurring at his former team (we'll get to that in a bit).
"I like our relationship," Kahne said of the duo. "I like what we've accomplished together, and think we can accomplish a lot more. He's definitely one of my main guys."
Should that pair stay together, it'll revitalize an organization that will have two proven winners in the fold for the first time: Kahne and Vickers. With Vickers set to return this February after being sidelined by blood clots, the duo has the potential to pull an Earnhardt-Ganassi and win a handful of races while threatening to qualify for the Chase. Plus, Kahne gets to enjoy the laid back lifestyle of a Red Bull athlete and all the perks that go with it, the part he was most excited about during a Tuesday teleconference with reporters. It all adds up to a lot of positives for a guy considered a future superstar under the right circumstances.
Brian Vickers. All indications are Vickers is right on schedule with his recovery, set to return to Red Bull Racing this February. His Twitter feed is abuzz with news of biking, hiking and outdoorsy things that show a return to being active. Should the doctors clear him, Vickers no longer has to carry the load at RBR for the first time in his four-year career there. With Kahne in the fold, the duo can share information instead of Vickers playing teacher for open-wheel convert Scott Speed, leaving Vickers free to focus on shaking off the rust and regaining success after six months off.
Rick Hendrick. The car owner can now breathe a major sigh of relief after finding Kahne a place to land. More than anything, this deal illustrates how powerful NASCAR's most successful car owner has become. There's a 50/50 split, depending on who you talk to, as to whether Red Bull Racing will eventually become a satellite team of Hendrick's and switch to Chevy (for the record, Red Bull started off the press conference by confirming Kahne will drive a Toyota next year).
I've talked to people who claim it's impossible for a future Hendrick/GM driver to run under a different manufacturer. But consider Hendrick isn't exactly a full-time Chevy guy, either. He has a handful of Toyota dealerships, just like he sells Dodges and BMWs, too.
"Rick Hendrick is a friend to our company," said Toyota President Lee White, who immediately pointed out those connections and reconfirmed his company's commitment to Red Bull through 2012. So there was no need for Hendrick to even jump over the Toyota hurdle, as White didn't know of any potential signing until the weekend of Watkins Glen.
The sport's shrewdest businessman was then left with easy pickings, able to convince Red Bull execs that Kahne would provide enough of a one-year marketing and economic boost to make him worth having. In the process, he unloads Kahne's contract and gets double publicity through two manufacturers without breaking NASCAR's four-team rule with a more direct partnership through, say, James Finch or Stewart-Haas Racing.
Others do think differently, thinking RBR will still get sucked into the Hendrick/GM family. But even in that scenario, Hendrick makes out like a bandit, adding a third chassis/engine client to his repertoire that already includes SHR. It's notable the Red Bull owners themselves haven't made a comment on this move; wouldn't you trot yourselves out in public for a signing of this magnitude? But none of that concerns Hendrick much with his primary team; he now enjoys the stability of the same four-driver lineup three years in a row next season while moving on to the next problem: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s sudden implosion. NASCAR's George Steinbrenner strikes again...
Mark Martin. For Martin, this move confirms what he's been saying all along: the No. 5 car is his through the end of November 2011. Several media members didn't believe that, spreading speculation to the point Martin had to issue repeated, frustrating denials that served as an off-track distraction for his team. Now, he can worry about what his team is doing on the track, trying to sneak in and make the Chase after moving up to 12th in points after Watkins Glen. Keep in mind this program finished runner-up in the standings to Jimmie Johnson last year, meaning a playoff berth is all it needs in order to make noise down the stretch. Not having to play 20 questions with reporters now significantly ups his chances to do just that.
And as for 2012? Ownership could still be in the cards for the 51-year-old veteran. But now, instead of being forced to make that choice he can decide over time if taking that step is right for him.
Toyota. Some might wonder how Toyota ends up a winner despite only having Kahne for one year. But in talking to White, he emphasized how growing organizations like Red Bull need to have drivers with the veteran experience to win races. "With this economy, you don't own people," he said, stressing the fact one year could lead to long-term benefits for Red Bull. "All we care about is a driver's potential to win races." That's why White gave Red Bull his blessing, stressing the ability for a team to make its own decisions. And with a Red Bull/Toyota commitment that lasts through 2012, he hopes for long-term improvement while looking forward to milking the Kahne connection for all its worth. "I can't wait to see the sponsifier commercial for Kahne," he joked about the popular award-winning campaign for the manufacturer. Neither can I.
Red Bull Racing. In one sense, I can understand Frye's assertion RBR made this move to win now: When both teams are well outside the top 25 in owner points and you have to do something to rejuvenate a struggling program. But a short-term fix with Kahne serves as nothing more than a Band-Aid. What if Vickers' health issues return? That leaves you with zero full-time drivers under contract for 2012. There's definitely a risk of a short-term gain, long-term pain scenario here.
The other thing that doesn't make sense is Frye's assertion Hendrick's not paying a dime to put Kahne in the seat. Check out this quote from a June FOX Sports article about the current state of his program following the release of Competition Director Elton Sawyer, who claimed the team had been through a series of budget cuts:
"I understand the economic conditions of the sport right now, but things are not going well there [financially]," he said.
Fast forward to Tuesday, when Frye claimed an expansion to three cars (in order to keep both Vickers and Speed) is a possibility. Talk about a direct contradiction; the whole thing makes no sense unless there was a financial boost from somewhere. It could be from Toyota paying for a one-year deal to grab Kahne, it could be another sort of financial windfall ... but someone, somewhere is helping this deal out.
It all adds up to a bunch of question marks for 2012 and beyond. For 2011, there's bound to be some improvement, but anything short of two cars in the Chase may not be worth it if the program is left vulnerable over the long-term.
James Finch. People will ask me what happened between Finch, Hendrick, Kahne, Martin, and the 09, a story I reported back in June. The answer is, it all comes down to money. Keep in mind Hendrick has not yet signed a full-time sponsor for Jeff Gordon in 2011. Repeat: Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion, third in Cup points last year and the winningest active driver in the sport. While there's no doubt a deal eventually gets done, the fact it's taken this long shows you how bleak the financial landscape is in this sport.
In the end, Red Bull offered two things Finch could not: A) Sponsorship already in place and B) A program that had a history of being competitive. While Finch has start-and-parked for the vast majority of races, RBR is one year removed from the Chase and has six top-10 finishes. The No. 09 has just one, and their 2011 chances of full-time funding might be zero after this latest announcement.
Scott Speed. At Indy in July, Speed was hiding coy smiles when asked about a contract extension with Red Bull, considered a mere formality considering his close relationship with the team's Austrian ownership. Now? Things are a bit unclear. Considering Vickers' likely return to the No. 83, that leaves Speed the odd man out in a 2011 two-car Cup program. At best, he's re-signed and moved into a Nationwide or Truck Series ride to hone his skills for a year, similar to what Germain Racing is planning to do with Max Papis. Speed would keep the seat warm for 19-year-old Cole Whitt, RBR's development driver with four top-5s in NASCAR's single-A K&N East Series, who would conceivably move up the minor league level at some point.
At worst, Speed finds himself the odd man out with few options this late in Silly Season. Either way, it's not ideal for someone who's clearly regressed since a strong start left him well inside the top 12 this March.
Richard Petty Motorsports. Already resigned to losing Kahne, there was some faint hope within the team Hendrick would work out a deal to keep Kahne in the No. 9 for 2011. Now that's a goner, as are the majority of people that work at the company. Three of the drivers and sponsors won't be returning next year, leaving the future in question beyond the long-term signing of driver AJ Allmendinger. Unless funding can be put in place for Marcos Ambrose, The King's future in sport may soon be hanging by a single thread.
AMP Energy. How would you like to be Dale Jr.'s sponsor right now, looking forward to working with future teammate Kahne only to see him run off to a rival energy drink? That's a one-year vacation that's got to be leaving more than a few people unhappy in the Pepsi camp.