NHL: Hendrick signs Kahne to drive in 2012
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hendrick Motorsports landed yet another prized free agent, this time Kasey Kahne, in a complicated deal that apparently won't begin until the 2012 season.
With a full lineup already planned for 2011, there's currently no room to plug Kahne in for next season. But his contract with Richard Petty Motorsports is up, and team owner Rick Hendrick didn't want to miss an opportunity to sign the talented and popular 30-year-old driver.
The announcement Wednesday by Hendrick Motorsports said Kahne will replace Mark Martin in the No. 5 Chevrolet in 2012, and where Kahne will race next season is still being decided.
"If this opportunity was going to happen, I knew having some unanswered questions would be part of the scenario at this stage," Kahne said in a statement. "Hendrick Motorsports has a commitment to Mark Martin that they want to fulfill, and that's important. It's part of what attracts me to the team."
Kahne and Hendrick are expected to discuss their new partnership later Wednesday.
Kahne signed with HMS through 2015, locking himself into a long-term deal that takes the top free agent off the market just seven races into this season. He had apparently decided before the start of the season that he'd leave RPM at the end of the year, and his original plan was to be part of a fourth-car expansion at Joe Gibbs Racing.
But talks with JGR had a sponsorship contingency that had to be resolved by April 1. When that deal fell apart, negotiations with Hendrick began in earnest.
"In Kasey, we saw an opportunity to cement a big piece of our future," Hendrick said. "He possesses incredible talent and a tremendous dedication to his craft, and we know he'll be a great fit within our company.
"Kasey has earned the respect of his future teammates by the way he's handled himself on and off the racetrack, and we know he'll be a contributor to the success of Hendrick Motorsports for many years to come. To have someone of his caliber join our team is an unbelievable opportunity for us."
Hendrick currently fields cars for Martin, four-time champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Last season, Johnson, Martin and Gordon led a 1-2-3 sweep of the final Sprint Cup Series standings.
HMS is considered the ultimate destination for any racer, but finding a spot in the lineup can be difficult. Kyle Busch was fired midway through 2007 to make room for Earnhardt, and Casey Mears, whom Hendrick shared a strong bond with, was let go in 2008 for Martin to come aboard.
Hendrick said in a statement that Martin will stay in his car next season, fulfilling the two-year contract extension he announced last September.
Kahne, meanwhile, is convinced the deal is the step he needed to compete for a championship.
An 11-time winner and two-time Chase for the Sprint Cup championship qualifier, Kahne has never finished higher than eighth in the standings. That came in 2006, the year he won a career-best six races while Ray Evernham was still running the day-to-day operations of his team.
Evernham later partnered with George Gillett, and the team began a series of roller-coaster moves that culminated with last year's rushed merger with Richard Petty Motorsports. The organization has been beset with financial problems, and Kahne has been critical of management and a lack of progress.
That all led to an easy decision to sign with Hendrick Motorsports.
"I have a comfort level with Mr. Hendrick, my future teammates and the culture of the organization," Kahne said. "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.
"Determining the next step in my career has been an important process, and I'm excited and relieved to have the decision made and announced."