DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When he donned his new fire suit yesterday at Daytona International Speedway, the fact that it bore a Hendrick Motorsports logo wasn’t lost on Kasey Kahne.
It carried special meaning for the 31-year-old driver from Enumclaw, Wash., who waited two long years for the moment when he could count himself a full-fledged member of Rick Hendrick’s championship-driven and Chevrolet-backed organization.
“It feels good,’’ said Kahne, who was walking with a limp after undergoing surgery last Thursday to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.
Resplendent on media day in his white fire suit, festooned also with the logo of his Farmers Insurance sponsor, Kahne was feeling no pain.
“To finally put it on and walk around in it - Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet on it, all things I’ve wanted to be a part of for a long time - it’s exciting and it gives you confidence,’’ said Kahne.
Kahne’s move is just one of many in the 2012 NASCAR season, which will get underway with tomorrow night’s Budweiser Shootout, a two-segment, 75-lap dash for cash among last season’s pole award winners.
In all, nine full-time drivers will be in new rides, eight of them paired with new crew chiefs.
The biggest switch is the departure of Darian Grubb as crew chief for reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. Grubb will work with driver Denny Hamlin, who parted ways with crew chief Mike Ford.
Stewart, meanwhile, will have Steve Addington, who worked last season at Penske Racing as Kurt Busch’s pit boss, on his No. 14 car.
Kahne was spared from having to break in a new crew chief when he was joined in his move to Hendrick by longtime chief Kenny Francis, along with four other crew members.
“He brings a lot to the table,’’ said Kahne. “So it is neat to see how much Hendrick Motorsports welcomed Kenny to the organization and how much he thinks of those guys as well. It’s been a great position that we have been in this offseason.’’
Kahne signed on with Hendrick in April 2010, but had to wait for a seat to open on the roster. One didn’t become available until this year, when veteran Mark Martin departed the No. 5 car to drive a limited Sprint Cup schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing in the No. 55.
In the interim, Kahne felt a like a driver in exile. His career has taken one turbulent turn after another over the last four seasons, as the team he originally signed with, Evernham Motorsports, was restructured and became Gillett Evernham Motorsports before it merged with Richard Petty Motorsports.
After driving two different makes (Dodge, then Ford) of his red No. 9 car for the first seven seasons of his career, Kahne wound up last season as the lame-duck driver of the No. 82 Toyota fielded by Red Bull Racing, which shuttered its operation at the end of the season.
“Red Bull, they spent a ton of money, but that didn’t make them the best team or even close to it,’’ said Kahne, who closed out his one-year stint with Red Bull by recording seven top-10 finishes in the last eight races, including an impressive win at Phoenix in the penultimate race.
“I think it is the management, the people, the owner, and how badly you want to work for certain people,’’ Kahne said. “You want to work for them because they are good to you and they make you feel like you’re a part of it, and that is the biggest thing over there [at Hendrick] - everybody loves what they are doing and they want to make Mr. Hendrick happy.’’
Kahne won’t be the only driver looking to make a favorable impression on his new boss.
A.J. Allmendinger will attempt to do the same with Roger Penske after taking the No. 22 Pennzoil–sponsored Dodge ride vacated by Kurt Busch, who was released at the end of a stormy 2011 season pockmarked by clashes with his team on the track and the media off of it.
Busch will be looking to resurrect his career and reshape his battered image behind the wheel of Phoenix Racing’s No. 51 car owned by James Finch.
“We have different expectations this year,’’ said Busch, who also will split time in the Nationwide Series car fielded by his younger brother, Kyle. “For me, that is what it’s about - having the fun, not having that big pressure. It’s working with Kyle, it’s working with Finch, and not having the big sponsors breathing down your neck and the expectations to win at all costs.’’
When Allmendinger left the No. 43 seat at Petty Motorsports (filled by Rookie of the Year candidate Aric Almirola) and was tapped to replace Busch in the No. 22, it culminated a series of silly-season moves that included:
Clint Bowyer’s departure from the Richard Childress Racing No. 33 car to drive the No. 15 for Michael Waltrip Racing; the move of David Ragan to the No. 34 car fielded by Bob Jenkins after his seat in the No. 6 was eliminated by Roush Fenway Racing’s contraction to three teams; David Reutimann’s displacement from the No. 00 Toyota at MWR and move to Tommy Baldwin Racing, where he’ll split time in the No. 10 car with Danica Patrick, who will run a limited 10-race Sprint Cup schedule in addition to a full 33-race Nationwide Series schedule.
It may take the drivers some time - and perhaps a roster - to get acclimated to all the changes.
“I think it usually takes about two races to really kind of get it,’’ Hamlin said. “When we go back to the bus after practice at Daytona, you go back and watch [on film] and you kind of go, ‘Yeah, that is this guy.’ You can figure it out pretty quick.
“Even with all the different numbers and colors and everything on the car, you usually know who it is by the way they’re driving.’’
For Kahne, picked to finish eighth in a media poll behind favorite Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champ, the change represents his long-awaited desire to find stability in Hendrick’s championship stable.
“You know what your owner expects, and he can expect it because he give his employees and all the guys that opportunity to build and prepare cars capable of doing what he expects out of it,’’ Kahne said. “When you are in that situation as a driver, you can’t be unhappy about it.
“It is really exciting to hear Mr. Hendrick talk about what he expects for the season.
“We are a part of that now, so we need to step up and show him that we want to make him happy.’’