Incase you haven’t heard the news from this morning, Hendrick Motorsports has decided to part ways with 37-year-old driver Kasey Kahne after six years driving for the organization. Hendrick opted to release Kahne from the final year of his contract following the conclusion of the 2017 this season. This coming on the heels of Kahne snapping a 102-race winless streak taking home a checkered flag at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis, but it was perhaps too little too late for the driver of the No. 5 car even after punching a ticket to The Chase this season.
In the press release this morning, Team Owner Mr. Hendrick spoke very highly of his driver over the last six seasons, “Kasey has worked extremely hard. He’s a tremendous teammate and person, and he has been totally dedicated to our program since day one. I’ve always believed that he’s a special talent, and I know he will thrive in the right situation. We will do everything we can to finish the season as strong as we can.”
Several of Kahne’s fellow drivers took to social media to express their thoughts on the situation with teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson expressing their well wishes for Kasey in the future.
Kahne earned six of his eighteen career wins for HMS and will no doubt have a ride in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series if he chooses to continue to compete at auto racing’s highest level, which everyone fully expects him to do. “I’d like to thank Rick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports for their hard work and dedication, along with providing me a great opportunity and success over the last six years. We won six races together and I’m coming off of one of the biggest wins of my career at the Brickyard, which has given the (No.) 5 team a lot of momentum heading into the playoffs. We still have a lot of racing left in 2017 and finishing strong is our top priority. I look forward to what the next chapter in my career holds,” Kahne said in his statement today.
The move for Hendrick to release Kahne could be in part tied with a lack of sponsorship with the ride in the future. We have seen several teams across the sport go with a younger and less expensive driver while still maintaining similar results on the track each week. Dale Jr. touched on it this week when reflecting on the future of the sport, essentially saying teams can’t pay a veteran driver $5-$8 million per year when that team is struggling to bring in $10 million in sponsorship. The comment by Dale was perhaps a bit of foreshadowing on his part of the move coming down the stretch for HMS.
If that is indeed the case, perhaps Hendrick Motorsports will look to inject even more youth into their four-car operation bringing up William Byron from their Xfinity Series team to drive the 5 car. The 19-year-old Byron has already scored a trio of victories this season in his first year in the series while collecting 14 out of 20 top-ten finishes. The youngster has certainly flashed his ability driving a top-tier ride in the series and to score three wins with top Cup drivers competing in just 2o races is almost unheard of. The kid is going to be special.
If Hendrick were to go the younger route, they would have 21-year-old Chase Elliott in the 24 car, 24-year-old Alex Bowman replacing Dale Jr. next season in the 88 and 19-year-old Byron in the 5 lead by veteran seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. The move to another young driver would vindicate the success rookies have had this season while driving high-level equipment such as we’ve seen out of Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez this season in their rookie campaign. This move would also allow HMS to save money on paying a veteran such as Kahne and reinvest the savings back in the team to add speed and upgrade the equipment of all four cars in the garage.
Byron perhaps makes the most sense for the long-term future of Hendrick Motorsports, as they won’t have to risk loosing him down the line if they promote him to the Cup level immediately, but there are at least two other names on the market that offer much more upside in the interim for Hendrick if they want another driver capable of running for a title right away in 2018.
The first option is veteran Matt Kenseth. The 45-year-old will be a free agent after this season after Joe Gibbs Racing opted not to bring him back in the 20 car for 2018 and bring over young Erik Jones from Furniture Row Racing. Kenseth has 38 career victories and was the series champion back in 2003 and has been a model of consistency every time he straps up and gets inside the race car. Kenseth was the runner-up last weekend at Watkins Glen and has found a second wind this season ever since the news broke that he wouldn’t return to JGR next season. Matt is no doubt eager to prove to teams and potential future owners that he still has what it takes to compete for wins each week and is always in the championship hunt as the season grows to an end.
Matt Kenseth has had success driving a Ford for Roush, a Toyota for JGR so the logical end to his career would taking a shot at a title in a team stacked with Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott. Sponsorship will also not be an issue with Kenseth as it was for Kahne as through two decades in the sport, Matt has forged a strong bond with brands such as Dewalt and Dollar General.
The other option for owner Rick Hendrick is to bring in Kurt Busch, 2004 series champion, to drive the 5 car. The 39-year-old Busch, we learned last week, will join Matt Kenseth in search of a ride for next season as Stewart-Haas Racing announced they would not be picking up his option. After starting off the season with a special win in the Daytona 500, the team has scuffled and has struggled to consistently find any speed. The veteran has 29 career victories and has shown he still has what it takes to not only win races, but compete for a championship.
The dream-come-true scenario for Hendrick Motorsports would be getting the entire band of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Jr. together to try to lure Carl Edwards out of an early retirement. That possibility remains a long-shot, but Edwards still has the fire in him to capture that elusive first championship and what other team could offer a better opportunity than the one that has produced a combined twelve series titles. Edwards is only 37-years-old and has potentially another five-plus years competing at the pinnacle in the series if he so chooses to. After all, if you’re in Edwards’ position, no matter your intentions, when Rick Hendrick calls, you answer the phone.
The team still has a call to make in regards to who will be on the pitbox next season for the 5 Team. Keith Rodden is currently in his third year leading HMS No. 5 Chevrolet SS team with Kasey Kahne. Rodden has been regarded as one of the brightest young minds in the NASCAR garage, and also picked up his first career win as crew chief at Indianapolis a few weeks ago. Rodden and the current team will likely stay in place, but veterans such as Jason Ratcliff from the 20 team at JGR will also be on the market looking for a top-notch ride to win with.
There are four great options for Hendrick Motorsports in 2018 and beyond, all offer much more upside in terms of wins on the track and dollars in sponsorship or savings for the organization. While the move may be hard to swallow in terms of timing and the team just capturing a huge victory, it is the logical choice.
Personally, I would do all I could to try to recruit Carl Edwards to return to the sport, tug on the heart strings for his love of racing and dangle the carrot in front of him of those missed championships in hopes he puts on the firesuit for at least one more full season. If Edwards stays dead-set on retirement and aspirations of running for political office, I would sign Matt Kenseth to a two-year deal with a team option after year one. Enough to keep Matt motivated as he finishes off his storied career. Ultimately, Hendrick would still have Byron waiting in the wings and garnering experience running for the team in the Xfinity Series ready to step in within a year or two.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank