Stoico: Kahne’s seat with Hendrick in 2018 is no sure thing

  • Kasey Kahne kneels in the garage area during practice Saturday for Sunday's Cup series race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. AP

Monitor staff
Sunday, July 30, 2017

What happened last week at Indianapolis wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Now, Rick Hendrick has a decision to make.

Kasey Kahne, sputtering along through his worst season in 14 years of Cup racing, emerged as the winner of the Brickyard 400 after surviving a three-way battle with Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for the lead with two laps to go. Johnson wrecked, followed by another pile-up on a restart, but the demolition derby didn’t carry into the final restart where Kahne took the lead for good.

It was Kahne’s first win in three years and more than 100 races.

Hendrick was all smiles as he celebrated with Kahne and the No. 5 Chevy’s pit crew in Victory Lane. He kissed the bricks for a record 10th time, but Kahne is only the third driver to deliver for Hendrick at Indy. The others you may have heard of: Jeff Gordon (five Brickyard victories) and Jimmie Johnson (four).

But the fastest car didn’t win – it hardly ever does. Midway through the race, it seemed we would spend the following week discussing Kyle Busch’s first win and a late-season resurgence for Joe Gibbs Racing. Either that or the continued dominance of Martin Truex Jr. Both had Toyota Camrys with enough speed to beat the field, but their race ended with 50 laps to go – Truex in a ball of flames and Busch in a crumpled mess of sheet metal.

Instead, we’re talking about Kahne. His Indy win was by no means a leisurely drive that summer evening. Kahne proved he’s capable of winning races. And even though Truex has made it look easy this year, winning a race in this circuit is anything but.

It’s a healthy addition to Kahne’s resume, but in a season where the pilot of the No. 5 has just four top-10s it may not be enough to keep him in Hendrick’s four-car lineup going forward.

Sponsorship is a big part of it. Farmers Insurance, Kahne’s sponsor since 2012, announced in October that it won’t renew its partnership with Hendrick next season.

That leaves Kahne without a sponsor for his car heading into the final season of his contract with Hendrick, a long ways from his inaugural season with the group in 2012 where he won a pair of races. He followed up with two more wins in 2013 and one in 2014. But two straight seasons without a win in ‘15 and ‘16 left Kahne out of the Chase.

“What have you done for me lately?” Hendrick may have asked. It seemed to be a classic breakup happening before our eyes.

Kahne was well on his way to another season outside the playoff bubble before the Brickyard 400. Moving forward, he has a checkered flag sticker above his driver’s side window and a position in the playoffs – two things that can’t be said of his Hendrick brethren Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott. Johnson, Hendrick’s crown jewel and the reigning Cup champion, has three wins and will see Kahne in the playoffs.

If a sponsor comes forward to put its name across the hood of the No. 5 Chevy, Kahne may be safe for another year.

But it will not go beyond that.

The seat in that car is already warmed up for William Byron, the 19-year-old wunderkind tearing through his first full season in the Xfinity Series. That became clear when Hendrick announced in Indy that Alex Bowman, another youngster at 24, will take over the 88 when Earnhardt retires at the end of the season.

Byron is on a similar path to Elliott, who enjoyed two strong years with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series before jumping to the Cup level full time in 2016. Elliott is still chasing his first Cup win.

When Byron signed on with Hendrick last August, Kahne denied that the move put him on the hot seat. But he did admit that his racing career needed to make a sharp and fast turn for the better.

If not, well ...

“If I haven’t performed by 2018, I need to leave,” Kahne told FOX Sports in August. “It’s pretty simple. That has nothing to do with William Byron or anyone else. If I haven’t performed by then, it’s time to go do something different. That’s just the way racing and life is.”

In the snapshot of last weekend, Kahne performed better than anyone else. But in the bigger picture of the No. 5 car in 2017, there is not much for Hendrick to smile upon.

Kahne kissed the bricks, but in a couple of months Hendrick might be kissing him goodbye.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)