Commentary

RPM drivers like their chances in 2010

Updated: February 9, 2010, 12:39 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In just more than two years, the Sprint Cup organization owned by seven-time champion Richard Petty has merged with three different companies, been housed in four different shops and changed its name from famed Petty Enterprises to Richard Petty Motorsports.

And in all of this it has gone from basically a one-car team to four.

And it's gone from Dodge to Ford.

Arguably never in the sport has one high-profile organization endured so much change in such a short period of time just to stay afloat. RPM easily could be the poster child for the new NASCAR.

Have team ... will merge.

First with Boston Ventures. Then with Gillett Evernham. Now with Yates Racing.

The irony is the organization has a shot to be stronger than it's been since the heyday of its figurehead whose 200 wins ranks No. 1 all time. Just ask star driver Kasey Kahne. He doesn't hesitate to say this is his best opportunity to win a championship.

Equipment certainly shouldn't be an issue as it sometimes has been. RPM will use engines and chassis from Roush Fenway Racing as a result of its merger with Yates. It also will pick up a wealth of technical support from beefed-up Ford, something it got little of from Dodge the past few years.

And it will benefit from sharing information among not only the four RPM drivers but also the four at Roush.

Richard Petty Motorsports

The 2010 driver lineup for Richard Petty Motorsports:

Kasey Kahne

Car No.: 9
Crew chief: Kenny Francis
2009 finish: 10th
2010 outlook: Kahne says he's in the best position of his career to make a run at the championship, and from an equipment standpoint he may be. He'll also be a free agent after the season, and most believe he'll drive elsewhere in 2011, with Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas the most likely landing spots. Finishing outside the Chase would be a disappointment.

AJ Allmendinger

Car No.: 43
Crew chief: Mike Shiplett
2009 finish: 24th
2010 outlook: RPM was so high on him before last season that officials were ready to kick Elliott Sadler out of a ride to get Allmendinger on the track full time. He showed flashes of that potential with six top-10s, finishing with a pair of top-10s and a 13th in the final three races. Moving into the top 20 is realistic.

Elliott Sadler

Car No.: 19
Crew chief: Wally Rogers
2009 finish: 26th
2010 outlook: This is a big contract year for Sadler. It's a big year for his career, period. His numbers have progressively dropped off the past few years, and he earned only five top-10s last season. If he is to keep a good ride, he'll have to show significant improvement. The good news is sponsors love him. The bad news is it'll be hard for him to crack the top 20.

Paul Menard

Car No.: 98
Crew chief: Richard "Slugger" Labbe
2009 finish: 31st
2010 outlook: Menard is the only driver to compete in every Cup race without a top-10. He also doubled his DNF totals for 2009. Not statistics that will keep you in good equipment unless your daddy owns the company sponsoring your car. Even if he improves, he'll be no better than 25th to 30th place.

"Combining what we have with some of the Roush guys and what we're building, there is definitely something to look forward to," Kahne said. "I'm excited."

Kahne is excited enough to say, at least publicly, he's willing to give the organization a chance to re-sign him beyond this season. Many don't believe that will happen. Some already have him penciled in at Stewart-Haas Racing or Joe Gibbs Racing -- or one of the other top organizations.

But Kahne admits that if RPM is as good as its potential, he won't close the door on returning.

"I definitely want to give my situation I'm in now a really good opportunity, a really legit shot at showing me that this is the spot where I need to be, that RPM is the spot where I need to be," Kahne said. "A lot of this merger and things, they've done it to try to build that, to give our team a better opportunity.

"I'm definitely going to give them a shot here. How long that takes, I don't know."

That's a much different tone than he had in November when he seemingly couldn't wait to talk to other teams. Maybe it's a ploy so he won't be a distraction all season. Maybe he honestly believes it.

Kahne didn't do too badly in 2009. He won a pair of races, qualified for the Chase and finished 10th in a car that could have been in a position to challenge for the title were it not for a blown engine and a crash in two of the first four playoff races.

"This year is going to be a year we have a really neat opportunity with what we have and what we're gaining by the merger," Kahne said.

He's optimistic to say the least. There also is uncertainty. The contracts of all four drivers -- Kahne, Elliott Sadler, AJ Allmendinger and Paul Menard -- will expire after this year. There also is a question of communication and the melting of two philosophies into one.

Foster Gillett, the principal owner, doesn't seem concerned. He believes the combination of Robbie Loomis as the competition director and former Yates co-owner Max Jones as president and general manager will provide solid leadership at the top.

He insists he and his father, primary owner George Gillett, aren't in NASCAR to make a buck and get out.

"One of the things that we desperately needed, at least in my tenure here, was a man who understood racing and business and how it combines in today's sport," Gillett said of Jones. "It's very important to have people who understand the racing side who have also been on the business side and can speak as easily to the drivers as they can the sponsors.

"I look forward to all the fruit that our relationship can bear."

It's still a work in progress. Sadler hasn't won a race since 2004, when he was at then-Robert Yates Racing. He's had only five top-5s since and has showed a steady decline in the point standings, finishing 26th last season.

Allmendinger remains somewhat of a project even though Petty thought enough of him to give him the famed No. 43 car. He had only one top-5 and six top-10s in 2009.

Menard, the lone carryover driver from Yates, has only one top-5 and two top-10s in 111 career Cup starts. His biggest battle has been to stay among the top 35 drivers guaranteed a spot in the field each week.

So there's the question of whether there is enough pure talent behind the wheel to raise RPM's performance despite better equipment.

That said, there is a quiet enthusiasm that has even Kahne upbeat.

"It's been a pretty crazy offseason trying to get cars built and trying to get familiar with new surroundings, but I'm really looking forward to it," he said. "We're going to have a better engine package, and working with a bigger group of people should benefit everyone."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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