Every team and organization with the exception of Kevin Harvick’s Budweiser Chevrolet are now looking for ways to replace the Stewart-Haas driver as next season’s champion. Some owners will look to change drivers while others believe that all they need to do is to plug in a new crew chief to turn around their fortunes and compete for the title.
Hendrick Motorsports has been known over the years to make changes whenever one of its teams struggles, and it didn’t take long for owner Rick Hendrick to announce a change for next season. All four of Hendrick’s drivers, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, made the Chase this season, but Kahne struggled all season long and only made the Chase after a late season win at Atlanta.
The 34-year-old Kahne just finished his 11th year in the series and during that span has posted 17 wins with five of those wins coming since he joined HMS in 2012. He came to HMS with his longtime crew chief Kenny Francis and the two got off to a great start in their tenure as they made the Chase the first year and finished a career high fourth.
The following season the two struggled as they seldom were a threat to win and finished a very disappointing 15th at the end of the season. Hendrick kept his driver-crew chief combination together for this season in hopes of the two turning their fortunes around, but even though they made the Chase, they were eliminated in the second three-race round of the 10-race Chase.
Hendrick wasted very little time once the season ended in announcing that Francis would be replaced by Keith Rodden for the 2015 season. Rodden leaves Chip Ganassi Racing where he was the crew chief for Jamie McMurray.
It will actually be a reunion for Kahne and Rodden as the two have a long history of working with each other. When Kahne and Francis first came to Hendrick, Rodden also was hired as the engineer for the team. He was part of the tremendous success that the team experienced in 2012 but left after the 2103 season to join Ganassi.
In his one season as McMurray’s crew chief the two won the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. They also earned two pole positions and maybe more importantly for McMurray, he set a career-best season in the number of laps led.
Rodden’s return to HMS now frees up Francis to take over the new position of vehicle technical director. In his new role, Francis will oversee organization-wide car design and development with day-to-day management of all of Hendrick Motorsports’ chassis, body, research and development, on-track testing, vehicle engineering and simulation programs. He will now be the primary liaison between general manager Doug Duchardt and all four of the organization’s crew chiefs.
Hendrick’s belief that Rodden’s return is what Kahne needs to win a title was further bolstered when he signed his driver to a three-year extension that will keep him with the organization through the end of the 2018 season. Kahne is now is a position to continue the championship heritage of HMS as he is the youngest driver in the stable.
PIT NOTES: Kahne’s contract extension now opens up speculation about where Nationwide champion Chase Elliott will land for the 2016 season. He presently drives for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports and will be back with that organization next season to defend his title before an anticipated move to the Cup Series in 2016. He is under contract with HMS, but with Kahne’s signing there will not be a spot open in 2016. It could be that JR Motorsports may be making the move up to the Chase level after next season.