Kanaan quiets rumors by signing five-year extension with AGR


SPARTA, Ky. -- Friday was just another up-and-down day in what has been a roller-coaster year for Andretti Green Racing.

While a fleet of mechanics scrambled to repair Danica Patrick's car after a practice crash believed to be caused by a suspension failure at Kentucky Speedway, AGR management celebrated the news that lead driver Tony Kanaan signed a five-year contract extension that will keep the 2004 IndyCar Series champion with the Indianapolis-based team through the 2013 season.

Less than 36 hours before, SPEED Channel reported that Kanaan was on the brink of moving to Target/Ganassi Racing. The 33-year-old Brazilian, who has driven for AGR since its formation in 2003, vehemently denied that was the case.

AGR's option on Kanaan expired Aug. 1, and TK was technically a free agent for the last week. But Friday, he claimed he had long since concluded a handshake deal with Michael Andretti's team, and that the Thursday night contract signing was merely a formality.

Andretti called Kanaan AGR's "franchise player."

"I never thought of being anywhere else, and obviously when they knew the [option] date was up people tried to contact me," Kanaan related. "I didn't want to get involved because I had somebody else representing my end of the deal. I had a handshake deal with [AGR] so I knew where I wanted to be.

"People came not after me, the way they are saying, but there had been a few phone calls here and there," he continued. "Not from one team, but wondering what was going on. I didn't want to answer those calls. I stayed away, and that's why there was a whole mystery of people saying that I said this or I said that. But I was never in contact, apart from AGR."

Andretti was livid about a story posted on SPEED's Web site Wednesday night in which Ganassi strongly hinted he was close to a deal with Kanaan.

"Yesterday [Tony] was very, very upset that all this stuff was out there," Andretti said. "He said it's making him look bad because that's not the way it has been. I think in some ways it was Chip being Chip. He probably enjoyed the last week of trying to disrupt things."

Ganassi is at Watkins Glen International with his NASCAR and Grand Am teams and was not immediately available for comment.

The AGR contract signing came together quickly in the wake of his reported negotiations with Ganassi. After spending Thursday at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc., where their American Le Mans Series team is in action this weekend, Andretti and team co-owners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree flew to Kentucky and got Kanaan to put pen to paper at about 7:30 p.m.

"There were a lot of rumors out there, and especially after this last week it was just getting ridiculous," Andretti said. "We just felt we had to get the signatures on paper. It starts to interrupt the guys in the team and they start wondering. We just wanted to put an end to that.

"It is good to put an end to that and we all know we're going to be together and now we can figure out how to maximize it."

Kanaan started the Friday afternoon news conference by saying that his re-signing with AGR shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. But based on his strained relationship with teammates Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick over the last couple of months, many observers believed TK wanted out of the IndyCar Series' only four-car team.

Kanaan and Marco Andretti have had at least three on-track skirmishes this year, one of which put the Brazilian into the wall when he was running strongly in the Indianapolis 500. And Patrick hindered Kanaan's progress in the most recent IndyCar race at Edmonton, claiming she did not hear requests from the team over her radio.

Michael Andretti called a drivers' meeting after the Edmonton race, and by his own admission, read the quarreling quartet the riot act. On Friday, he tried to play down the conflict within the team.

We're hunting down a guy who is running away with the championship and we definitely don't have time for practical jokes. It's going to be very difficult because [Dixon] is having a year like the one I had in 2004.

-- Tony Kanaan

"This is not something that is new to us, but everybody wants to start pointing fingers," Andretti said. "It's just the nature of the business. Every now and then they just need a reminder.

"You know, we had our squabbles back in '05, in '06, '07, even with those guys who were really close friends. There were still times when there were problems, but we have always been able to overcome that. I think people are thinking that's why our results are down this year and obviously the press loves to focus on that."

Kanaan was a team player when he was pressed about the issue as well.

"It's not the first time that happened and it won't be the last time," he said. "That's the nature of race car drivers. I want to have teammates that want to beat me. I don't want guys that always make it easy or try to help. I understand their position and I understand that drivers are selfish. If we can manage that and make that a healthy environment inside the team, we're all going to grow and get better. I don't see a problem. I don't see us not getting along, really."

Although Kanaan is by far the most successful and experienced driver in AGR's lineup, Andretti said that the Brazilian would not enjoy any sort of favored status in the future. In 94 IndyCar starts for AGR, Kanaan has posted 13 wins, 63 top-5 finishes and won the 2004 series championship.

Patrick, Marco Andretti and first-year driver Hideki Mutoh have a combined total of two wins and 26 top-5s in 117 starts.

"There is no number one driver," Michael Andretti said. "What has made this team work, I think, is that there isn't that. It's the four of them working all together.

"Have we had that all year this year? No. Has there needed to be some reminders? Yes. But I would say in most of the races they have worked together, and those were really the ones where we had our best race cars. Sometimes you have to remind them that if they all work together then they are all four going to get better results."

Kanaan said he was relieved to get the contract business behind him so that he could focus on the task of chasing down current championship leader Scott Dixon. Kanaan ranks fourth in the IndyCar standings, 118 points behind Dixon with four races remaining in 2008.

"We're hunting down a guy who is running away with the championship and we definitely don't have time for practical jokes," Kanaan noted. "It's going to be very difficult because [Dixon] is having a year like the one I had in 2004."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.