Kasey Kahne has signed a contract with Hendrick Motorsports to drive its No. 5 car beginning in 2012, two sources said Tuesday.
Kahne's plans for 2011 are unclear, but he will take over the No. 5 car the following year for Mark Martin, whose contract is signed through next season.
That means Hendrick's driver lineup in 2012 will be Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. The deal is specifically to drive the No. 5 car, meaning Kahne would not replace another driver.
Kahne had made it clear at the end of last season he was unhappy at Richard Petty Motorsports and was looking elsewhere. At Homestead, he all but confirmed he would not return to the team, which is seemingly in disarray with financial troubles and a lack of leadership.
But in January, Kahne tried to back off his comments – perhaps knowing being a lame-duck could ruin his shot at a good season – and said: "A lot of teams have showed interest, and that's nice to know. I'm open [to staying] right now, because I don't know exactly what we have. ... I feel like it's something I definitely need to pay attention to and not say, ‘Man, I don't want to be here,' because this could be a spot where I do want to be."
As it turned out, it wasn't a spot he wanted to be. Kahne had indicated he would not make a decision until the summer, which made the timing of his Hendrick move a bit surprising. But given his slow start (averaging a career-low 24th-place finish, 26th in points), perhaps Kahne already figured this season was a wash.
Hendrick Motorsports is by far the best team in NASCAR, so it makes sense for Kahne. And Kahne fits the "Hendrick image" of having a calm, respectful, clean-cut personality.
But next year, all four seats are already filled. Or, as Hendrick once said, "There's no room at the inn."
That could leave Kahne driving a third car for Hendrick affiliate Stewart-Haas Racing for a year. At least that makes the most sense. For now, though, Kahne's 2011 ride hasn't been determined.
Still, the situation seems a bit odd in that Rick Hendrick – an avowed Mark Martin fan – is saying goodbye to the ultra-respected Martin before the driver has said he's ready to step away. It seemed for awhile as if Martin would finish his career with Hendrick; that may not be the case now, unless Martin recently decided 2011 will be his final season.
Last month, Martin told SB Nation that he loved driving more than ever.
"There's no beach in the world I'd rather be on than (at the track), and if there was, I'd be there," he said.
So at this point, there are more questions than answers. And more than just about Kahne and Martin.
Where does this leave the other big-name free agent, Kevin Harvick? Joining Stewart-Haas never sounded like a good idea for Harvick, who we could imagine might clash with team owner Tony Stewart. Those are two strong personalities that might not click in a owner-driver relationship.
Could Harvick bring his own team to Sprint Cup racing? Perhaps he could join Joe Gibbs Racing in a fourth car.
How about Budweiser? Does the sponsor go with Kahne or switch to another driver?
And what happens to Kahne's No. 9 team at RPM? Will crew chief Kenny Francis, engineer Keith Rodden and others who have made up the core of the team be able to leave RPM for Kahne's new organization?
If so, would that ultimately mean No. 5 team crew chief Alan Gustafson – who is said to be an even better crew chief than Chad Knaus – switch to another Hendrick driver? Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. fans would salivate over that possibility.
Some of the fallout from Kahne's decision will spark moves we cannot yet foresee. Since Silly Season has gotten an earlier-than-expected start, it's going to be an interesting summer.