For Kahne and Hendrick, it's all good
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One of the first comments posted to Tuesday's news story that Kasey Kahne signed with Hendrick Motorsports was short but true.
"Good for him. Bad for NASCAR," the reader said.
It is bad if you're an owner trying to catch HMS, which has won the past four championships with Jimmie Johnson and nine of the past 15. It is bad if you're a fan who likes to see the wins and titles spread around, and a lot of you are, judging by your distaste for Johnson's dominance.
About the only good for those outside of Kahne and HMS is, as team owner Michael Waltrip not-so-delicately put it, "Maybe he will be able to beat JJ."
That is why Kahne signed with HMS, for which he is penciled in to replace Mark Martin in the No. 5 in 2012. That is why he was willing to sign a year and a half out, likely having to spend a year at HMS affiliate Stewart-Haas Racing while waiting for the ride to become available.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Toby TalbotRichard Petty on the departure of Kasey Kahne: "We all wish him nothing but the best and hope he succeeds in anything he chooses to do."
Kahne didn't come to this decision to make Hendrick stronger, and it's debatable whether a 30-year-old driver with 11 career wins will, given that the man he is to replace has 40 wins and five runner-up finishes in points. Kahne came to this revelation because he understood it was his best chance to win a Cup title.
"I have a comfort level with Mr. Hendrick, my future teammates and the culture of the organization," Kahne said in a statement. "For me, it's the right fit on every level, and I think it gives me a great chance to win races and compete for championships."
You can't fault Hendrick for taking advantage of this anymore than you can blame George Steinbrenner for stockpiling talent with the New York Yankees simply because he has the money. You can't blame Kahne for taking advantage of Hendrick's dominance anymore than you can Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for doing the same thing when they signed.
OK, so it hasn't worked out so well for Earnhardt yet.
And Hendrick hasn't always gotten his man, losing Brad Keselowski to Penske Racing this season. The Kahne deal actually was made possible because Keselowski turned down a similar offer after deciding he didn't want to start with one team at SHR or JR Motorsports for a year or two and then have to start over with another team at Hendrick in 2011 or 2012.
"One of the things that plagues the sport as far as drivers are concerned is the 'grass is greener on the other side' mentality a lot of us have,'' Keselowski said. "The thing about that mentality is that few of us recognize we have the ability to water our own grass. The grass is already watered at Hendrick.''
As prophetic as that is, it was tough for Keselowski to turn down Hendrick. He calls it the toughest decision of his career.
"It's Rick Hendrick and the teams that are winning championships,'' he said.
So does Keselowski think Kahne's move is bad for the sport?
"I don't think it makes a difference,'' he said. "I don't think it's a bad move on Kasey's part. I just don't think it'll make a difference. It's the same boat I was stuck in.
"The biggest thing Kasey has to offer is he'll attract a top-tier sponsor. That's what he has to offer, like what Dale had to offer. That's a big deal.''
That doesn't make the move good for NASCAR. It's certainly not good for Richard Petty Motorsports, which likely loses a sponsor in Budweiser and the only marquee name on its roster with little chance to fill it with an equal, or any of the other organizations hoping to land the star.
To be fair, the sport always has had a dominant team that top drivers gravitate toward. Darrell Waltrip signed with Junior Johnson because he knew that was the best place for him to win a title. It's why three-time champion David Pearson went to Holman-Moody and then to the Wood Brothers.
Had Richard Petty not driven for the family business he likely would have looked for a top team like HMS as well.
"If you're a ballplayer, you want to go to the Yankees or Red Sox because they win the World Series," said Ray Evernham, now an ESPN analyst, but previously signed Kahne to drive for then-Evernham Motorsports in 2004. "It's just part of the deal, and Kasey Kahne is good enough, talented enough, to win a championship.
"Whether it's good or bad for the sport I really can't say. If you ask Kasey, it's good. If you ask Rick Hendrick, it's good. If you ask me, it's just the sport."
But if you had asked Evernham when he was a team owner he would have gritted his teeth and tossed out one of those words Tiger Woods says when he hits a bad shot.
"Sure I would," Evernham said. "Absolutely I would. I was competing against him then. As a competitor I don't like to lose. I don't like to lose at all."
Evernham also understands what it's like to be on the HMS side of the dominance. He won three championships with Jeff Gordon (1995, '97, '98) before leaving to start his own team. He knows better than most that this was a no-brainer decision for Kahne, who finally will get the equipment and consistency from an organization that he never got from Evernham or current RPM owner George Gillett.
"Honestly, the equipment has been up and down," Evernham said. "That's no slam on George, because the equipment was up and down when I was there."
That won't happen at Hendrick, although as we saw with Busch, Casey Mears and now Earnhardt that doesn't guarantee a championship or even success.
"I keep asking, is it bad for the sport that the Red Sox get all the good guys or the Yankees get all the good guys?" Evernham said. "Honestly, I don't think Rick has all the good guys. He's got a good stable, but quite honestly there are other good drivers out there right now.
"It's not just the drivers beating people at Hendrick. It's Hendrick horsepower. It's Rick's organization. He's been building 25 years with several different drivers, several different styles of cars and several different styles of crew chiefs. It's not really all about the drivers."
For me, it's the right fit on every level, and I think it gives me a great chance to win races and compete for championships.” -- Kasey Kahne
No, it's about winning. For the past 15 years nobody has done that better than Hendrick. That success now is spilling over to his farm team at SHR, which won Saturday night's race at Phoenix with Ryan Newman and placed Newman and co-owner Tony Stewart in the Chase a year ago.
Drivers and sponsors want to go there almost as badly as they do HMS because they know they'll get similar success. And imagine how much more powerful that alliance could get if the sport's other top free agent, Kevin Harvick, goes there and takes his already strong Nationwide Series team with him.
Don't forget Hendrick also has IndyCar Series darling Danica Patrick in the fold at JR Motorsports. If this experiment works she could be in line for a Cup ride at HMS, SHR or JRM in 2012.
For all we know JRM will field Kahne in a Cup team next year to keep a seat warm there for Patrick, although that doesn't seem likely since Kahne's move took those folks by surprise. But when you're king of the hill, you can do just about anything you want.
Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs and Roger Penske have to be worried as they watch Hendrick compile not only the most talented drivers in the sport, but also the most marketable. Where there is market power there is sponsor power, and where there is sponsor power there is the money it takes to stay on top.
In this tough economy that's more important than ever.
Imagine an HMS-SHR lineup of Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt, Kahne, Stewart, Newman, Harvick and Patrick in 2012. They'd be favored to win more races and sell more souvenirs than the rest of the garage combined.
It would be like the Yankees and Red Sox joining forces to rule Major League Baseball. You could rename the Chase for the Sprint Cup to the Chase for the Hendrick.
You can't blame Kahne for wanting to be a part of that, something he's never had before and likely never will have a chance at again. You can't blame Hendrick for wanting to give him that opportunity.
Like the reader said, good for Kahne, bad for NASCAR.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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