- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Except maybe at Andretti Green Racing.
The IndyCar Series team co-owned by Michael Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree is fielding its fourth different driver lineup in the past four years, and to the outside world, it appears the chemistry and camaraderie that were the team's longtime calling card have gone up in smoke.
The odd man out increasingly looks like Tony Kanaan, who was Andretti's personal choice to anchor AGR when he took an ownership interest in Team Green and shifted the renamed team from the CART championship into the IndyCar Series prior to the 2003 season.
Kanaan rewarded Andretti's faith with the 2004 IndyCar Series championship, and he remains a consistent race winner and perennial championship contender -- in short, one of IndyCar's most popular and respected drivers. On paper, he is the logical team leader for AGR's youthful 2008 driver lineup that also includes 26-year-old Danica Patrick, 21-year-old Marco Andretti and IndyCar rookie Hideki Mutoh.
Yet at times this season, Kanaan might have had reason to feel like the No. 4 driver in a four-car team.
It's a far cry from 2005, when TK was teamed with Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta, two of his best friends who had all raced together since the mid-'90s in the CART series. The three of them played mentor to new-boy Dan Wheldon, who blossomed into a major star in his own right at AGR before leaving to join Target/Ganassi Racing in 2006.
Wheldon was replaced by Marco Andretti, and a year later, when Herta was tapped to lead AGR's Acura-powered effort in the American Le Mans Series, Patrick was recruited.
But the biggest shakeup to the team's basic makeup didn't occur until this year, when Franchitti departed after 10 years with the Green/AGR organization to pursue a NASCAR career. Swapping the experienced Franchitti for Mutoh, a raw rookie with only one year of American racing experience (and none in IndyCar), was the most radical step in AGR's youth movement.
For the first time in his six years with AGR, Kanaan is the team's only true veteran driver, and the strain might be starting to show.
He's had on-track skirmishes with teammate Marco Andretti in two of the past three races, one of which ended Kanaan's run in the 92nd Indianapolis 500.
TK had publicly put that disappointment of Indianapolis behind him by the time the IndyCar Series raced at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks later, but he was livid in his pit communication when Marco again raced him too close for comfort.
Given the tension between himself and Marco Andretti, paddock speculation already has Kanaan looking to take his services elsewhere in 2009, and he is naturally being linked to Team Penske and Target/Ganassi.
Prior to his breakthrough win at Milwaukee, Ryan Briscoe was in the hot seat at Penske, while a seat with Ganassi's IndyCar team could open up if Wheldon fulfills his stated desire to race in NASCAR.
But Kanaan maintained his focus remains firmly on winning races and a championship for AGR in 2008 -- not his potential future as a free agent.
"You've got to know how to separate things," he said. "If I let that get into my head on a race weekend, it might affect my performance.
And if it affects my performance, I might not have a job. So I can't let it interfere with that."
AGR co-owner Green said with four eager drivers on his team, he expects there to be the occasional run-in. But he also expects the drivers involved to nip potential aggravation in the bud.
"We've certainly had to work through some things as a team, but that goes with the territory when you have a competitive group of drivers," Green remarked. "There is a certain amount of fire that comes with a competitive driver that expects to win; if they didn't have that trait, they wouldn't likely be very successful.
"On a good day, AGR hopes to have all four cars at the front, going for a win," he continued. "When that happens, it's inevitable that you're going to be racing each other pretty hard at some point, and in the heat of the moment, two drivers are probably going to see things different. But you have to regroup once the dust settles and get back to the job at hand. That's what we've done here."
Kanaan threw observers a curve ball when he showed up last weekend at the NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Michigan International Speedway to visit Franchitti. Kanaan insisted earlier this year that he planned to stick to open-wheelers, and he and the Ganassi NASCAR team (for whom Franchitti drives) were quick to dispel speculation that he was at MIS checking out the job market.
You've got to know how to separate things. If I let that get into my head on a race weekend, it might affect my performance.
And if it affects my performance, I might not have a job.
-- Tony Kanaan
However, it's possible Kanaan had a quiet word with Franchitti about life after AGR.
"Michael is in a difficult position, and there have been times where he put his 'Dad' hat on before his team owner hat," Franchitti observed. "That's hard for anybody in the team who isn't Marco.
"That can be a problem, but they've got the personalities there to sort that out if there is friction within the team -- guys like Kyle Moyer and the engineering crew, with Peter Gibbons and Allen McDonald."
Having been there for several iterations of AGR's evolving driver lineup, Franchitti believes that perceived strife within the team is more apparent -- and more important -- to the outside world. That's why he thinks if there is any strife between the AGR teammates, it will quickly blow over.
"When I came on board in mid-2002, Michael [Andretti] was looking for teammates that were really going to work well together," Franchitti said. "And with every subsequent driver, I think it has worked well.
"It's hard to pinpoint exactly why it worked so well with Bryan, Tony and myself with Dan or Marco, but it wasn't all sunshine every day,"
Franchitti added. "At Phoenix in '05, Dan was a lap down, he held me up, and I felt that cost me the race. We got into it pretty big after that. Tony and I got together at St. Petersburg last year and it probably cost one of us that race.
"So there were definitely days when each of us was kind of pissed off at one or the other. But the good thing is it was kind of self-policing. The four of us would sit down, whether it was at the hotel or over dinner, and we'd figure it out."
Kanaan admitted that with four AGR cars running close to the front, there's a greater likelihood that they will get together. Yet there weren't many incidents like the ones back in the day with his veteran teammates that he has recently endured with Andretti.
"We do have a big team," Kanaan said diplomatically. "Four cars, it's a lot. The probability for that to happen is definitely higher, especially with such competitive drivers like we are. And we're always in the front, all of us.
"We have young guys trying to prove themselves, and we have an old guy here that's been in their shoes before. So probably that helps, as well."
From his perspective, Franchitti believes that Kanaan will regain his winning ways sooner rather than later.
"Look what happened in 2006 -- AGR had a terrible season and then we came back and won the championship a year later," Franchitti said.
"They'll get it back.
"I think right now everybody's in [Scott] Dixon's shadow," he added.
"He's doing a hell of a job. But Tony is the best all-rounder I've ever competed against, and if anyone can do it, it's TK."
Green is also firmly convinced that Kanaan's best days with AGR are still yet to come despite any tension that might be lingering within the team at the moment.
"Throughout the history of our team -- Andretti Green and even back to the Team Green days -- we've had to deal with this type of situation a number of times," he said. "But, again, it's something you have to expect, and having more than one competitive and successful driver racing for us at the same time has paid off pretty well for us over the long haul."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Tension appears to be escalating between Andretti Green Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti, fueling speculation in the IndyCar paddock that TK might be taking his services elsewhere in 2009, writes John Oreovicz.