CONCORD, N.C. (AP) Hendrick Motorsports announced a three-year contract extension Thursday that keeps Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 Chevrolet through the 2018 Sprint Cup season.
The deal removes Kahne from the free-agent market and raises questions about where Rick Hendrick plans to put Nationwide Series champion Chase Elliott in his stacked lineup. Kahne's current contract expired after next season, and many believed he'd have to improve his results to remain with the organization.
Hendrick is making changes to help Kahne, who needed a late win at Atlanta in August to make the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He was eliminated from the Chase after the second round and finished 15th in the final standings.
HMS this week said Keith Rodden, a longtime engineer on Kahne's team, was returning to the organization as crew chief of the No. 5 car. Kenny Francis, who had been crew chief for Kahne since the final race of the 2005 season - the second-longest active driver/crew chief pairing in the Cup Series - was moved into a design and development role for the entire organization.
''I've found a home at Hendrick Motorsports,'' said Kahne, who signed with HMS in 2010 for a deal that began with the 2012 season. ''It's the right place for me, and I'm looking forward to being here for a long time.''
But it puts Hendrick in a bind with Elliott, the 18-year-old phenom who won NASCAR's second-tier series championship in his first season competing at the national level. Elliott won the title driving for JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., his sister, Kelley, and Rick Hendrick.
Earnhardt has said the team has no plans to move up to the Sprint Cup Series, and Hendrick has only said the immediate future for Elliott is a second season with JRM.
Hendrick fields the NASCAR-maximum four cars in Cup for Earnhardt, Kahne, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion Jeff Gordon. Although Gordon has hinted that retirement is coming, he said in a Twitter chat Wednesday it's currently ''not on my radar.''
Johnson, at a Thursday event for the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, said he's working on an extension for his contract, which expires in 2015 and that Elliott was not a candidate for his No. 48 seat.
''I think someone else is in line for retirement before me,'' he joked of Gordon.
Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt said Thursday on Sirius XM that Elliott will run a handful of Cup races next season - that's allowed under NASCAR rules - but ducked a question on where he'll eventually land. He likened Elliott to a Triple A prospect in baseball and the pressure to bring him up to the big leagues.
''I understand it's part of the fun and speculation of what could or should be done. I completely understand it,'' Duchardt said. ''We're going to try to make sure we put him in the best position to be successful when he does come here full-time.''
Kahne, meanwhile, has ranked among the top 10 drivers the last three seasons in Sprint Cup wins (five), pole positions (four), top-five finishes (26) and laps led (1,177). He has 17 career Cup wins and has three consecutive berths in the Chase.
''I think the world of him both as a driver with championship-level talent and an overall terrific young man,'' Hendrick said. ''We're committed to winning races and competing for titles with him for many years to come.''