Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR’s top team, often ties its sponsors, drivers and crew chiefs into tidy packages of concurrent contracts.
That didn’t happen, though, last week when the team announced Farmers Insurance had signed a three-year extension of “its sponsorship of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.” There was no mention of the driver, Kasey Kahne of Enumclaw, also getting a new deal tied to a sponsor that will be on the car through the 2017 season.
Kahne’s contract runs through 2015, about the same time Chase Elliott will be ready for a promotion from the driver-development program to the big leagues. Hendrick Motorsports has got to put Elliott somewhere, and there is no guarantee Jeff Gordon is going to smile his way into retirement and hand his seat over to Elliott.
Gordon, 42, leads the Sprint Cup standings.
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It is easy to read too much into Kahne being left out of the Farmers announcement.
But it is hard not to wonder just how safe Kahne, 34, is with Hendrick Motorsports. He has four victories in 87 Cup races dating to 2012. He is winless this season and is 19th in the standings.
Meanwhile, teammates Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., have combined for six victories, rank 1-2-3 in the standings and are all locked into the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
“Mr. Hendrick is always trying to help me as a driver, as a person and he gives us every opportunity. So, I want to be there a long time,” Kahne said last week at Michigan International Speedway. “We still have a year and a half before my deal is up. So I think (it’s about) performance, and sponsors that want to be part of them, and just getting our team back where it needs to be.
“We’ve struggled some this year, for really no reason. We can’t have that. If we can get rid of some of those struggles, I would hope that I would be at Hendrick Motorsports for a long time.”
Kahne was fifth in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400.
Asked afterward if that finish silenced his critics, Kahne was blunt.
“Probably not all of them,” he said. “And they probably don’t all need to be silenced after one good run. We were way too bad the first 14 or 15 races, and hopefully this will get us going and we can get strong from here and make some points up and get in the Chase.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick tried and failed to get Kahne into his cars early for the 2011 season. It landed the driver at Red Bull Racing for the 2011 season. Although he won once for Red Bull and finished 14th in the standings, it was never more than a holding place until Kahne could finally execute the Hendrick contract he had signed almost two years earlier.
Amid much fanfare, Kahne finally joined the organization. But it is tough to stand out at Hendrick, where Johnson has been the most dominant driver of the decade, Gordon is an icon and Earnhardt gets the lion’s share of the attention no matter what.
Kahne indicated he is ready to discuss a future with the organization.
“I don’t know when that date is, but I think we have a lot of really good things going on, and with a little bit of performance here and there, maybe it will come up sooner than later,” he said.