With all the speculation and conspiracy swirling around Kasey Kahne's plans for 2011, the fact everyone already knows for sure is that he'll be in an HMS car in 2012. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have carried all of HMS's significant success over the past decade while their teammates' success has varied wildly.
Kasey Kahne brings one of the better rookie campaigns of all time in 2004 with 13 top fives, 11 career Cup wins and a best points finish of 8th in 2006 with an inconsistent organization, and the perfect package to attract lucrative sponsorships. So how will Kahne fare with HMS and can he perform up to the standards of Johnson and Gordon?
There's no doubt that Kahne's got the talent and the potential, he's 30 years old he's in the prime of his career, and he can win at just about any track. More importantly he's got the right temperament and SHOULD fit into the HMS mold no problem.
But HMS' had it's problems getting it's drivers not named Johnson and Gordon up to par. It's either taken the super talented like Kyle Busch or an all time series great like Mark Martin, but Kyle was such a bad fit that Rick Hendrick chose to keep Casey Mears over him when he signed Dale Jr. for 2008. I think Casey's a better driver than people give him credit for but he's no Kyle Busch.
HMS' best success with drivers (and even CC's) have been with guys they've brought up themselves like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and even Brian Vickers (BV got HMS their first Nationwide championship in 2003). Established drivers they've hired, with the exception of Mark Martin, haven't worked out as well recently.
(Rick did hire Terry Labonte in 1994 but he was already a former Cup champion. And there's Geoffrey Bodine, Tim Richmond, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Ken Schrader and Ricky Rudd from the 80's and early 90's but that was before HMS became the championship-winning powerhouse we all know and mostly hate today. Then there's Ricky Craven but he had that concussion late in 1997 that derailed his career)
I'll start with Wally Dallenbach who replaced Ricky Craven part way into 1998 and drove for HMS until 1999, although he was always a good road racer but struggled in NASCAR. He preceded...
Jerry Nadeau, who had 2 seasons in Cup under his belt before replacing Dallenbach for 2000. He got his first career win that year and then finished 17th in the standings in 2001, but a rough start to 2002 forced his departure 11 races into the season.
The driver who replaced him was 8-year vet Joe Nemechek but that didn't even last until the end of 2003 despite a win at Richmond that season; he was let go with 4 races to go (but to an HMS satellite team in MB2), replaced by rookie Brian Vickers.
When Vickers left after the 2006 season, he was replaced by Casey Mears who'd spent his first 4 seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing. Casey actually had a pretty good first year with a win, 10 top tens and 15th in the standings being the best anyone's done in the 4th Hendrick car over this stretch. But a switch over to the #5 resulted in a drop of performance and his replacement by Mark Martin.
And finally there's Dale Earnhardt Jr., a better and more proven race car driver than any of the rest and probably on par with Kasey Kahne. His first year was ALMOST a resounding success, Dale Jr. ended the regular season 4th in the standings with a win and a shot at many more. But the honeymoon ended and things have been mostly downhill since with Dale Jr. tanking to 12th in the Chase and then suffering the worst season if his career in 2009. Things have been better in 2010 but after the promise of the first 26 races of 2008 Dale Jr. still hasn't shown he's up to the standards of Johnson and Gordon.
Which leaves us with the most recent hiring, Kasey Kahne, who follows this long chain of driver hiring and firings. Does the chain stop at Kahne?
We're still a little less than 2 years away from having Kahne in a Hendrick car so it's probably too early for predictions but I'll do it anyways. Talent alone won't cut it at HMS, despite having shoved the competition's face into the dirt the last 10 years it's still important to have team chemistry like Johnson, Knaus and the #48 have, and be consistent race in and race out like Johnson and Gordon are. A lot's going to depend on who Kahne's CC is (does Kenny Francis follow Kahne like Eury Jr. did Dale Jr. or will it be Alan Gustafson or another HMS CC), and either Kahne hasn't shown the consistency yet or he just hasn't been able to thanks to Evernham/GEM/RPM.
And then how long does Jeff Gordon continue to drive for? If Kahne's still there when Gordon hangs it up then that'll be a huge boost for him, but that could be years from now.
If any driver Rick Hendrick could hire can break the trend then it is, and has to be, Kasey Kahne. I think he's a good fit for HMS and if he takes 100% advantage of this opportunity then he stands a good chance of becoming the 4th driver to win a Cup championship for Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports.
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