Whenever Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) or any race team makes a deal to bring a driver into their organization, after the initial shock and awe wears off, much of the talk turns to how many races and championships that driver is now going to win.
Shortly after Rick Hendrick and Kasey Kahne held their teleconference to formally announce and answer questions about their new partnership of leaving Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) for HMS, the talk began about Kahne becoming the next big force to reckon with in the sport.
Some used every outlet on the web, from social networking to to articles on NASCAR related sites, to put out their predictions on race wins, while others wrote they believed that he would capture two championships at HMS.
Little early to be calling shots, right?
For Kasey Kahne fans they’re most likely already going to sleep at night dreaming of a bright future for their driver at NASCAR’s best organization. It’s always fun to sit back and wonder what the future holds and Kahne fans won’t be the only ones; however, it’s strikingly similar to what Junior Nation was doing just three years ago.
After Hendrick shocked the world by snatching up Dale Earnhardt Jr. from his family team, everyone began making bets. Darrell Waltrip predicted he would win the Daytona 500 and six races in 2008. Unfortunately, he only won once and it wasn’t at the Daytona 500. Others said that HMS would be the organization that helped him finally win a championship, if not more.
It’s safe to say that after two years and seven races of year three, he hasn’t lived up to expectations. Which means now they turn to Kahne, putting him in the hot seat. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports brings many expectations and pressures. You’re supposed to win races and contend for championships, and if you don’t you’ll be talked about mercifully.
Kahne appears ready for the challenge and optimistic about what he’ll be able accomplish with his new team. “I think it’s the best opportunity I could ever have, and I’m just going to make the most out of it,” Kahne said last week.
He’ll need all the confidence he can muster if he looks back at past HMS drivers.
Some fit in better than others, not every driver is cut out for a certain team or organization. The big dog of the big dogs in HMS is no different.
When Earnhardt Jr. arrived from Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) it was Kyle Busch that was moved aside. Busch had grown up in the HMS family and was at one time said to be the future of the company. Plans changed rather quickly.
Until he moved to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 Busch wasn’t the hard-charging, flat out, win-at-all-costs driver. He was in the background at HMS and in his three years in Sprint Cup with the organization he won four races and the highest he finished in points was fifth, in his last year there.
Go back to driver before Busch that left after two years, Casey Mears.
Mears got his shot behind the No. 25 GMAC/National Guard Chevrolet. In his first year, 2007, he won his first career race at Charlotte on a fuel mileage gamble in the Coca-Cola 600 and finished 15th in points. A year later, his last with HMS he was 20th in points before going to Richard Childress Racing.
Mears took the No. 25 car from Brian Vickers.
After debuting in 2004 Vickers won once before moving after three years, and that win was bit of a controversial one. He spun out leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. after sending then teammate Jimmie Johnson into him on the last lap in Talladega.
Vickers highest point finish was 15th and just like Busch it came in his final year with the organization. Upon joining Red Bull Racing Vickers won a race and made the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup, even though he finished 12th in points, last of the Chasers.
The argument can be made that these drivers, or maybe in this case just Mears, weren’t championship material. Does that mean Kasey Kahne is and what makes him so?
He’s only made the Chase twice, out of six, since it became the format in 2004, which also happened to be Kahne’s rookie year. He’s never won a championship and the closest he’s ever come was when he finished eighth in 2006 after winning six races.
“Well when you look at Kasey’s record and 11 wins and 16 poles and just turned 30-years old, he’s one of the already stars of our sport, but has got a lot of years ahead of him,” says future team owner Rick Hendrick.
It’s the same thing that he and many others said about Earnhardt Jr., perhaps the best driver to compare Kahne to when looking at why he will or will not become that championship star with the best equipment money can buy.
One argument is that both drivers, when driving for their former teams of DEI and RPM, were in mediocre equipment but still had years where they were able to make the best of it. As mentioned Kahne won six races in 2006, Earnhardt Jr. did the same two years earlier, 2004, when he finished fifth in points.
Another argument could be their statistics.
Hendrick mentioned Kahne’s 11 career wins to date. When Earnhardt Jr. joined Hendrick in 2008 he did so with 17career wins, seven poles, no championships, and a highest point position of third. Nothing but greatness was predicted for him at his new organization.
However, there are those that say Kahne is better that Earnhardt Jr., that he has more of a work ethic, and hasn’t been blessed with great equipment. In 2004 there was no doubt that DEI was one of the best organizations, however they haven’t been one of the organizations in the sport that was the one to beat, neither has RPM.
Kahne and Earnhardt Jr. are very similar.
Now their paths are going to cross and they’ll have the same equipment and fans will have a better opportunity to make a case as to why one is a better pick over the other.
For Kahne though, he has bigger things to worry about: making sure he succeeds.
Just like Mears, Vickers, and Busch, now Earnhardt Jr. has enjoyed both success and failure with Hendrick, finishing outside the Chase and going through winless spells. Signing your name on the dotted line of a contract that has Hendrick Motorsports on it doesn’t mean you’re going to set the world on fire.
Hopefully Kasey Kahne is up for the challenge and ready to deal with anything, because sometimes the checkered flags aren’t always guaranteed in another garage.