The party was just beginning in the Enumclaw, Wash., home of Kelly Kahne, father of NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne. Surrounded by friends on his son's 30th birthday, April 10, Kelly sat in his living room to watch Kasey in the Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway. But 30 minutes before the green flag, the phone rang—a call that would turn out to be the stuff of a father's dream.
"Dad, I did it," said Kasey, calling from his motor coach at PIR. "I'm signing with Hendrick."
"Your whole career has been building to this," the father said. "Now you're with the best."
Indeed, Kahne is. On April 14 Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports, announced that he had signed Kahne, who's in the final year of his contract with Richard Petty Motorsports, to a five-year deal beginning in 2011. Kahne, the most coveted free agent in NASCAR this season, will have to wait until '12 to take over the number 5 car at Hendrick (when Mark Martin's contract expires). He will most likely spend the '11 season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, which has a close relationship with Hendrick. (SHR gets its engines and chassis from Hendrick.)
The reaction in the garage to the Kahne signing was a universal uh-oh. Imagine the Yankees adding Joe Mauer to their lineup, and you have an idea of the impact this move could have. Hendrick has won the last four Cup titles with Jimmie Johnson, and in the last 50 races Hendrick drivers have 18 victories (36%.) "It's an eye-opener," says Jeff Burton, who drives for Richard Childress Racing, of Hendrick's latest move. "Every team in the garage wanted Kasey.... It is what it is."
What it is for every other team is bad news, as the domination by the Hendrick operation—referred to by more than a few rival drivers as the Death Star—doesn't look as if it will end anytime soon.
There are three reasons why Kahne was the most sought-after free agent since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2007: He possesses as much car control as any driver (he has 11 career wins); he has one of the biggest fan bases in the sport (he usually has a throng of female fans trailing him around the track); and he has an enormous appeal to sponsors. (He's currently backed by Budweiser, which may follow him to Hendrick.) Says Johnson, "It's hard to find any weaknesses in Kasey."
The big loser in Kahne's move to Hendrick is Richard Petty Motorsports. Owned by George Gillett, RPM recently defaulted on a loan of some $90 million. (As of last week the company was working on restructuring the obligation.) Gillett, a current co-owner of Liverpool in the English Premier League, has vowed not to sell or fold the team, but none of RPM's current drivers—Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard and Elliott Sadler—are under contract with the team beyond this season, and none of them would qualify for the Chase if it started next week. That Kahne, who made the Chase last year, is 22nd in the standings is a reflection not of his skill level but of his inferior equipment. No wonder he developed a wandering eye.
"This is the best opportunity I could ever have," Kahne said shortly after signing his new contract. "I'm going to make the most out of it."
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Dale to 'Dega
With his eighth-place finish on Monday at Texas (behind winner Denny Hamlin), Dale Earnhardt Jr.(below) extended his winless streak to 65 races. Junior will have his best shot at ending the drought on Sunday at Talladega, where he's had his most success (five wins) on the circuit.... First, though, he will have to survive what could be a wreckfest. NASCAR is no longer warning against bump-drafting in the corners. Expect multiple Big Ones on Sunday.... Frustration at the dominance of Jimmie Johnson is at an alltime high. Even teammate Jeff Gordon sounds as if he's had enough. At Texas, after he and Johnson (who would finish second) made contact on the track, Gordon fumed on the radio, "He just wants to be treated different than everyone else."
GARY A. VASQUEZ/US PRESSWIRE (CARS)
JOINING FORCES Kahne (9, and below) is a proven winner who'll look to challenge his new teammate Johnson (48) in 2012.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (KAHNE)
[See caption above]
TODD KIRKLAND/ICON SMI (EARNHARDT)