When you're Rick Hendrick, you usually get your man in the end. But even being the guiding force behind the most powerful and successful team in NASCAR doesn't always mean you get your man quickly or easily, as Hendrick found out when he signed Kasey Kahne to replace Mark Martin behind the wheel of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for 2012.
Hendrick had to juggle sponsors, as well as tweak salaries and percentages when he brought Dale Earnhardt Jr. on board prior to the start of the 2008 season. And to get Martin on the team in '09 meant Hendrick had to muster all the skills he learned while selling Chevrolets at his dealerships to seal the deal with Martin and, more importantly, Martin's wife, Arlene.
The Kahne deal, however, was something wholly more complex. The big hang-up was timing: Martin signed to drive for Hendrick in 2009 and had such a good first season that midway through the year he signed a two-year extension to take him through the end of 2011. After next season, presumably Martin will go back to a part-time schedule, although he has not publicly confirmed that yet.
Kahne, meanwhile, was in a messy situation. He had originally signed with Ray Evernham and won Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors in 2004, when he finished 13th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings on the strength of an impressive 13 top-five finishes. Two years later, Kahne won six races,
finished eighth in points and was regarded throughout the garage as The Next Big Thing.
In 2007, Evernham was tired of forever chasing sponsorship money instead of figuring out ways to make his cars go faster. So he sold majority interest in the team to businessman George Gillett who had gone through booms and busts in media, real estate and sports franchise management. Depending on whose numbers you believe, the team sold for between $80 million and $120 million. Under Gillett's management – which included hiring Richard Petty as the face of the team and renaming it Richard Petty Motorsports – the outfit gradually disintegrated, collapsing under a crushing debt burden.
Kahne was not happy that the team switched to Ford from Dodge this year, since Ford Motor Co. unsuccessfully sued Kahne for breach of contract when he signed with Evernham in late 2003. Nor was he happy with the lack of leadership under Gillett's management, the most common phrase around the team being, “Nobody knows who's in charge.” With his RPM contract up at the end of 2010, Kahne jumped at the opportunity to sign with Hendrick and the owner was thrilled to get him.
“I've always admired Kasey – how fast he is, aggressive when he needs to be and a good, clean racer,” says Hendrick (RIGHT). “And he's such a nice, young guy, I thought he'd fit into this organization really well.”
There was just one major problem: Hendrick had no seat available for Kahne in 2011. Rick wasn't about to displace four-time defending Sprint Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon, another four-time champ and minority Hendrick shareholder. And he damn sure wasn't going to let go of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in NASCAR and the team's cash cow.
That left many to speculate that Martin would somehow get shoved aside, with Kahne driving the No. 5 in 2011. Martin bristled at the rumors, finally firing back prior to the Brickyard 400. “I'm going to drive the 5 car,” Martin told reporters, as he displayed a rare fit of temper. “That's what I'm going to do in 2011. That's what I've said all along and I feel very disrespected when the media doesn't accept that. What that means is that you made me look like I am about to get fired. That's very disrespectful, guys, and I deserve better than that from you.”
In truth, there was never any discussion about replacing Martin, at least not in the Hendrick camp. In point of fact, Martin's biggest fan might be team owner Hendrick. “With Mark Martin, you know that when he straps in that racecar, you're going to get all he's got,” says Hendrick. “And you know what he's got is as good as there is out there. He's a phenomenal driver, and he's even more phenomenal in his conditioning. I really think he's 35 years old. I think he fakes being 50-whatever.”
It was back in mid-April that Hendrick signed Kahne for 2012. He would spend the next four months looking for a one-year-only ride for him in 2011. The task proved far more daunting than he ever imagined.
“When we first started talking, it was one of those deals where we both wanted it to work but it couldn't happen next year,” Hendrick says of his discussions with Kahne. “I told him I would commit – ‘I don't know if you want to do this, but I'll commit' – and whatever we had to do in the short term, we'd just do. He said, ‘I want to be there so bad that I'm willing to do whatever I have to do for that one year.' At that time, I didn't have any idea what that one year was going to be.”
For his part, Kahne put total trust in Hendrick to get the deal done. “We kind of left it up to Mr. Hendrick, what made the most sense for me for a year,” says Kahne.
Then, the real work began. And the rumors flew: Kahne would go to Stewart-Haas Racing, a quasi-Hendrick satellite team; Hendrick would fund a ride for Kahne through Florida businessman James Finch and his Phoenix Racing outfit; the Stavola brothers would come back to NASCAR and Kahne
would drive for them.
“Trying to find a home for him, where someone was willing to say, ‘OK, here's a ride and we're going to give you up in a year,' is kind of hard to do!” says Hendrick. “You had teams who were willing to start a new team and they were glad to have him for a year, but they didn't want to put a sponsor on him and then lose the sponsor. I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was.”
The big sticking point was brand affiliation. Hendrick is a Chevrolet racer and the goal was to get him to another Chevrolet team. The auto manufacturers take these affiliations very seriously: Former Dodge driver Kyle Petty was fined $50,000 by Chrysler when he filled in as mid-race relief driver piloting Kevin Harvick's Chevy at Bristol a few years back. Finally, after months of trying to put deals together with another Chevy team, Hendrick found a sympathetic ear at Red Bull Racing, where his old friend Jay Frye is the vice president and general manager. Red Bull, of course, is the one team in the garage that sponsors its own cars, so money wasn't an issue.
And Hendrick, who testified before Congress during the General Motors bailout talks, has enough juice in Detroit that he could get GM officials to look the other way for one year on the Kahne deal, even if it meant he drove for archrival Toyota.
“It just so happened that the deal with him and Red Bull worked out,” says Hendrick. “They could use somebody for a year and didn't need a sponsor, “It was kind of a perfect storm at the end, but it took a long time for it to develop. I didn't consider Red Bull in the beginning – never crossed my mind. I was trying to find a Chevy team but Red Bull had a need so it worked for everybody.”
From the Red Bull side of it, the deal was fortuitous as well. RPM's ongoing financial woes resulted in Kahne seeking and obtaining his release from the team on Oct. 20, allowing him to get five races with Red Bull this year as a precursor to 2011. Assuming Brian Vickers recovers from his blood clots in time to race next season – and all indications are that he will – Kahne and Vickers could make a formidable pair at Red Bull in 2011.
“If anybody has ever been to Kasey Kahne Racing, you see this kid and his DNA is a racecar driver,” says Frye. “It's what he does and we couldn't be more excited and happy to have him for the final five races this year and for 2011. We're going to make every effort to go compete for a championship. Win races, get in the Chase and go compete for a championship. Last year we got in the Chase, won a race, took six poles or whatever, and we surely think we can do that and then some. So we have very high expectations.”
So does Hendrick in what will be Martin's third and final season with the team. “We got off-track this year and we're getting it back. Now let's go win races. How cool would it be for him (Martin) to win a championship in his last year? We hate to see him retire, but that's what he wants to do. And we know we've got Kasey coming, so we need to have the team the best we can have it.”
FIVE'S STILL ALIVE
Mark Martin's turnaround
One of the disappointments of the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was the performance of Mark Martin, who failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, just a year after finishing runner-up in the championship. According to team owner Rick Hendrick, Martin's struggles this season are a result of shortcomings in the car, not the driver.
“We got off track,” Hendrick admits. “We were developing new stuff around the wing and went down a road building all the cars that way. Then the new spoiler comes along and you don't want to give up on your program because you know it works, so you try to figure it with the new car balance. Then finally, you go a different way. While you do all that, the competition's not saying, ‘We'll wait and let you figure out your mess!'”
Hendrick says not to expect wholesale personnel changes next year with Martin's team – or Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s, for that matter.
“People keep saying, ‘What are you doing with the 88 (Earnhardt)?' And they ought to be saying, ‘What are you doing with the 5 (Martin)? Nobody asked me that. Not one. But I walk through that gate and I've got 15 media people and 1,000 fans saying, ‘When are you going to do better with the 88?' Well, what do you do when you start to run really good, you're making gains but you haven't quite gotten there? We're always willing to change anything to get better, but I'm not willing to change something just to change it.”
Hendrick is pleased by the recent showings of Martin and Earnhardt.
“We're starting to click as a group and running better,” he states. “We've had some good races. There's a lot left to do, but I think we're going in the right direction at the right time.”