Trading Spaces Swapping drivers presents challenges and opportunities
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
The full details of Kasey Kahne’s move to Hendrick Motorsports have yet to be revealed, but there’s a consensus in NASCAR circles about how things will work out in the end.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the four drivers now running for Hendrick in the Cup Series, summed up the feelings of many in his comments to reporters at Texas Motor Speedway last week.
“I’m sure whatever Rick [Hendrick] chooses to do will be a smart way to take care of it,” Earnhardt said.
The complications come because Hendrick hired Kahne, now driving the No. 9 Ford at Richard Petty Motorsports, to take over his No. 5 car beginning with the 2012 season. But Mark Martin, who is under contract to drive the car through next season, is doing a very good job behind the wheel. That puts Martin in an awkward spot as, the way the situation looks now, he’ll be a lame duck in the No. 5 next year, while Kahne likely will be farmed out to a Hendrick-affiliated team, as many have speculated.
Hendrick said on a teleconference last week that it’s his responsibility to field a car for Kahne next year.
The scenario, on the surface, looks much like the situation back in 2003-04, when Kahne first came on the Cup scene to take over the No. 9, driven at that time by another veteran, Bill Elliott. Looking back, it seems that the driver swap was made a little too soon as far as Elliott was concerned.
In his last seven races in the 9 car, Elliott, who was 47 at the time, had an average finish of 4.56, including a win at Rockingham. And in his final run in the No. 9, he was less than a lap away from winning at Homestead in the 2003 season finale when a tire went flat.
Like Elliott back then, Martin today, at 51, is still plenty capable of delivering wins and competing for championships, so the idea of him retiring after next season is far-fetched.
He said so himself in his weekly interview with reporters at Texas.
“I’m not going to retire,” he said. “I’m going to race in 2012. And so don’t even talk about it. I’m racing in 2012.”
But he didn’t say where, and he may not know where.
“There will be an opportunity for me I’m sure, that will be exciting and fun and that I can help people,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done that. I feel like I did that in the No. 01 at DEI [after he left Roush Racing and before he joined Hendrick], and I feel like I’ve helped the No. 5 team realize that they can win races and contend for a championship.
“And so I’ll find another opportunity that’s exciting to me, and I don’t want to commit to that now. I want to make sure that Hendrick is set, and they are set. It’s such an incredibly perfect scenario.”
One possibility might be that he would own his own team, possibly with an affiliation with Hendrick, as his fellow driver Tony Stewart did last year.
“For the first time ever, I would consider an opportunity like Tony Stewart had,” Martin said. “I don’t want to be an owner, but if I can be an owner like Tony Stewart maybe I want it.”
Often in NASCAR, as was the case when Kurt Busch went from Roush to Penske Racing, the swap was made sooner than expected thanks to some behind-the-scenes dealing. But Martin’s comments indicate he’ll still be with his current team next year.
“I feel so fortunate to have a whole year and a half yet in front of me to work with [crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and this team,” he said. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity. It’s been the gift of my career to realize this and to be able to do this and be successful.
“It’s also exciting to do new things, and I love and embrace the excitement of 2012 and whatever that may bring.”