Kahne to drive for Hendrick
A person familiar with Kahne’s plans spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity Tuesday because portions of Kahne’s deal are still being worked out.
Most notably, it’s not clear where Kahne will drive in 2011. HMS is currently at NASCAR’s four-car limit, and Kahne is working out a deal to succeed Mark Martin in the No. 5 car in 2012. Martin has one more season left on an extension he signed last year, and owner Rick Hendrick plans to honor that deal.
Kahne was not available for comment.
Earlier in the day, Richard Petty Motorsports announced that Kahne informed them he’s leaving the team at the end of this season.
“Kasey is a very talented driver, and I have enjoyed watching him race,” said team co-owner Richard Petty. “We all wish him nothing but the best and hope he succeeds in anything he chooses to do.”
Kahne’s deal with Hendrick is done, but he still must figure out where he’ll race in 2011. Among his options are a potential ride with Stewart-Haas Racing, which has an alliance with Hendrick, another Chevrolet team, or, should Martin opt out of the final year of his contract, Kahne could get the No. 5 a year early.
A spokesman for Hendrick said the team owner was traveling Tuesday night and not available for comment.
Kahne has been with a version of the team that is now known as RPM since 2004, when he jumped from Ford’s development program to a Sprint Cup Series ride for then-owner Ray Evernham. Ford tried to fight the defection in court, but Kahne prevailed and built a successful brand as one of NASCAR’s young superstars.
Budweiser, which enjoyed tremendous success with Dale Earnhardt Jr., hooked on with Kahne in 2008 when Earnhardt moved to HMS and that team declined the beer sponsorship. With Kahne, Budweiser launched a popular re-branding that helped Kahne’s brand.
But he has been unhappy with his overall team performance the last year or so, and has been uncharacteristically vocal with his criticism.
Although he has 11 career wins and two berths in the Chase for the Cup championship, Kahne has not felt he’s had the equipment to contend for a championship. He was openly critical most of last season, when he overcame a hectic merger between Gillett-Evernham Racing and RPM and severe financial issues inside the organization to win two races and finish 10th in the Chase.
Still, a person familiar with Kahne’s negotiations told AP he had decided before the season-opening Daytona 500 he would not return to RPM next season. His initial plan was to move to Joe Gibbs Racing, but those plans were contingent on sponsorship that had to be locked in by April 1.
When no deal materialized, Kahne began negotiating with Hendrick in earnest. So convinced he wants to be with NASCAR’s top organization, he’s willing to be patient through 2011.
He’s off to a slow start this year, in large part to bad luck, and has just two top-10 finishes through seven races. He’s 26th in the standings.
McMurray to replace Bires in No. 88 Nationwide car
Kelly Bires was released Tuesday by sponsorship-strapped JR Motorsports, which is finding it difficult to develop young drivers without corporate backing.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. created the team as an avenue to develop drivers in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series level. But he and his family are running much of this season out of pocket because sponsorship has been difficult to land.
Bires, a Wisconsin native from Mauston, drove JRM’s flagship No. 88, which is only partially funded this year. Danica Patrick drives the No. 5 on a part-time basis with sponsorship from GoDaddy.com, but JRM is trying to run that car the entire season.
“We are extremely appreciative of Kelly Bires and wish him the best,” said Kelley Earnhardt, co-owner of JRM and Earnhardt’s sister.
“Internally, it was evident the chemistry that is imperative for us to succeed in this highly competitive industry was simply not there. That is the fault of no one person. We owe it to our fans and sponsors to make necessary adjustments in an effort to put our best product on the track, and we’ll continue evaluating our progress until we are confident that our full potential is being reached.”
Bires did not run the season-opening event at Daytona because a sponsor commitment required Earnhardt to drive that race. He did pilot the No. 88 in the previous five events, finishing a season-best seventh at California in his only top 10 this year.
Jamie McMurray will drive nine races for JRM, beginning this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Kelley Earnhardt said the team has sponsorship from Hellman’s for seven, and the Suave Men brand in the other two.
No decision on a driver has been made beyond McMurray’s commitment.
It’s possible that Earnhardt himself may have to drive the car some this season to bring in additional funds, a plan that goes against his initial reasons for creating the team. Earnhardt envisioned JRM as a place where his friends and family could work while helping young drivers move through the NASCAR ranks.
His most successful partnership was with Brad Keselowski, who took over the No. 88 midway through the 2007 season. Keselowski won six races, grabbed consecutive third-place finishes in the 2008 and 2009 final standings, and moved on this year to a Sprint Cup Series ride with Penske Racing.
Bires was tagged to replace Keselowski this season, but was immediately overshadowed by Patrick, who in December chose JRM to partner with in NASCAR. She has driven three of her scheduled 13 races so far this season.
The season even opened with some controversy for Bires as Patrick was unsure if she’d race at Daytona and the decision directly affected Bires. Because Earnhardt was already committed to the No. 88 for that event, Bires’ only way into the race was if Patrick opted not to run and Bires was given the seat to the No. 5.
“Not a good day,” Bires posted on his Twitter account following Tuesday’s announcement.
“Will continue working hard. I know I belong and will be successful in this sport. JRM gave me an opportunity, it just didn’t work out.”
Last updated: 1:36 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012