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Can Francis’ Move To RBR Affect Dale Jr In 2012?

[1]According to FoxSports [2], Richard Petty Motorsports crew chief Kenny Francis is close to signing a deal with Red Bull Racing to serve as crew chief for Kasey Kahne when he joins the team [3] next season.

Francis and Kahne have been together since 2005, when Francis took over crew chief duties from Tommy Baldwin Jr. in the middle of that season. Baldwin left the team to work with Elliott Sadler at Yates Racing.

Francis and Kahne have combined for 10 wins together, and have made the chase together twice.

If Francis moves to RBR to serve as crew chief for Kahne, it is likely — assuming he doesn’t sign a multi-year deal with RBR — to fuel speculation that Francis will also leave RBR following the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season to move with Kahne to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 team [4].

If that happens, that would leave HMS with five crew chiefs and four teams in 2012, if no other moves are made between now and then. Of HMS’ current crew chief stable, it would appear that Alan Gustafson, crew chief of Mark Martin and the No. 5, would be the odd man out.

But, earlier this season, Gustafson signed a multi-year extension [5] with HMS so he is likely to stay with the organization. There is a chance he will be moved to the research and development department.

But, I don’t think he will. I think that — assuming no other moves are made — he will become crew chief to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Before Tony Eury Jr and Earnhardt Jr were separated [6], there were rumors that team owner Rick Hendrick was considering swapping Eury Jr and Gustafson [7]. While those reports were denied [8], there is a good chance they were actually considered. And, if that’s the case, Hendrick had to think that the pairing of Gustafson and Jr would be productive, or he wouldn’t have considered it.

After the rumors surfaced, Gustafson and Mark Martin began to improve their performance, stopping any chance for a swap.

If Gustafson were moved to Jr’s No. 88 team, that would pave the way for Lance McGrew to return to his previous role in the R&D department. Back in April, I wrote [5]:

I don’t think — of course I don’t have insider knowledge — that McGrew would mind stepping out of the crew chief role. He seemed to be willing to accept the role as Earnhardt Jr’s crew chief more because Hendrick asked rather than because of a genuine interest.

So, if Francis does indeed sign on with HMS, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gustafson and Jr together in 2012.