News & Media

Retro: Kahne scores with manufacturer grand slam

September 23, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Even more oddly, he joins a team with guys who have driven for just one make

When he straps into the cockpit of a Rick Hendrick Chevrolet next February at Daytona, Kasey Kahne will join a short list of drivers who have completed what could be considered this generation's grand slam of NASCAR manufacturers: driving a Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and Toyota at some point in their careers.

At the same time, Kahne will be partnered with three teammates who -- if they continue on their expected career tracks -- will do something no other Cup driver with 600 or more starts has done: remain with one manufacturer for their entire career.

Kahne started his Cup career in 2004, driving Ray Evernham's Dodges. He moved to Richard Petty Motorsports and Ford in 2010 for 31 races, then to Red Bull's Toyota-based operation. So when he gets into the No. 5 Chevrolet next winter, he'll have driven for all four current manufacturers.

How rare is that? It's more common than you might think, given the current state of the sport. At least nine other drivers who have attempted one or more Cup starts in 2011 -- Bobby and Terry Labonte, Michael Waltrip, Ken Schrader, Joe Nemechek, David Gilliland, Dave Blaney, Robby Gordon and J.J. Yeley -- have driven all four nameplates at some point in their careers.

But it's definitely rarer than it was before drivers were signed to development programs, were beholden to the whims of big-money sponsors and inked to multi-year contracts by team owners with significant investment in the sport. Of the drivers in this year's Chase, only Ryan Newman has driven for more than two different manufacturers -- and half have never driven anything but the nameplate with which they started.

That includes Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who have never started a race in anything but a Chevrolet; long-time Roush teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards; plus Kevin Harvick, who has been with Richard Childress since 2001.

With Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt having signed multi-year deals with Rick Hendrick -- who hasn't fielded anything without a red Chevy bowtie since Rob Moroso drove a Hendrick Oldsmobile at Rockingham in 1986 -- chances are very good they will each surpass at least 500 races without changing manufacturers.

With 644 starts, Gordon is one of 22 drivers who have made 600 or more Cup starts in their career. And he's the only one who has remained with the same manufacturer for every race. In fact, with the exception of Jeff Burton -- who has driven Fords and Chevrolets -- every other driver in that category has driven at least five different nameplates.

Junior has 426 career starts -- all for Chevy -- and Johnson is at 354. They could be joined in that exclusive club by Harvick, who has 385 starts for RCR. And if Kenseth and Edwards remain with Jack Roush until their retirements, they'd add their names to the list. Kenseth has 427 starts as a Ford driver, while Edwards is up to 256 races in cars bearing the blue oval.

But even though many of the sport's legends are remembered for their brand loyalty, it wasn't always the case. A lot of that has to do with the way the sport evolved, particularly as different manufacturers gained an advantage on the track, or left the sport based on economics -- or Bill France's rule changes.

Drivers sometimes had nothing more than a handshake deal to climb in the car. And when purse money paid the bills instead of sponsorship, loyalty only went as far as who could provide you with the fastest car on the track that weekend.

For instance, two-time champion Buck Baker drove cars bearing 13 different nameplates during his career which spanned from 1949 to 1972. In addition to current manufacturers Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford, Baker competed for long-time racing rivals Buick, Chrysler, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Plymouth -- and a number of makes that haven't been seen on a NASCAR track in decades: Cadillac, Lincoln, Hudson and Kaiser.

During his 1,184-race career, Richard Petty was primarily known for his association with Chrysler products. But he made his debut in an Oldsmobile as a 21-year-old at Toronto in 1958, and didn't drive one of the family's Plymouths until a year later. Petty jumped to Ford for one season in 1969, then back to Mopar before switching to General Motors products midway through the 1978 season when Chrysler began to phase out its racing program.

Bill Elliott's name may be synonymous with Ford, but he drove an Oldsmobile at Atlanta in 1978, Chevrolets for Roger Hamby in 1979 and wound up in a Dodge when Ray Evernham started the factory team in 2001.

Dale Earnhardt, whose name was as closely associated with Chevrolet as anyone, made his Cup debut in an Ed Negre Dodge at Charlotte in 1975 -- and won three times in a Ford for Bud Moore before moving over to Childress in 1984.

Bobby Labonte is the only full-time Cup driver who can boast of driving six nameplates. In addition to the current four, Labonte also piloted Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs. Mark Martin is next with five.

It's possible that more manufacturers will join the sport in the future. But until then, Kahne -- and the other drivers who have four -- will have to be content with the current grand slam.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.