Andretti Green Racing is the most successful team in the history of the Indy Racing League, with 34 IndyCar Series race wins and three championships since 2003. That's saying a lot when your competition includes Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske.
But the last few years have been up and down for AGR. After flat-out dominating the IndyCar Series in 2004 and '05 -- resulting in consecutive championships for Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon -- Andretti Green suffered a difficult 2006 season with only two race wins.
2007 was more like '04 and '05 -- nine wins, including AGR's second at the Indianapolis 500, and another series title for Dario Franchitti.
But 2008 turned out to resemble '06, with only a pair of wins and a distant third place for Kanaan in the standings.
AGR's drop in form three years ago was fairly easy to rationalize.
When the IndyCar Series adopted a spec Honda engine in 2006, it was like giving Penske, Ganassi and the other teams that previously hadn't run Hondas with an extra 40 horsepower.
A renewed emphasis on research and development led to AGR's comeback in 2007, as Kanaan won a series-high five races despite not being in contention for the championship. Then Franchitti, who had driven for the organization since 1998 when it raced under the Team KOOL Green banner in CART, left in mildly acrimonious fashion as the outgoing series champion.
Franchitti's departure was symptomatic of what has plagued Andretti Green for the last couple of years: a lack of chemistry and cooperation among the drivers in IndyCar racing's only four-car team.
From 2003-'05, when the driver lineup was comprised of level-headed veterans Franchitti, Kanaan, Bryan Herta and up-and-comer Wheldon, AGR enjoyed an uncanny amount of camaraderie.
But since Wheldon left at the end of 2005 -- also as outgoing Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champion -- AGR's ever-changing driver lineup has been a source of angst. Wheldon's replacement was Marco Andretti, son of AGR co-owner Michael Andretti, and that delicate situation finally boiled over when Michael seemed to favor Marco over a title-contending Franchitti in a controversial late-2007 collision.
At the start of '07, Herta was shifted to AGR's ALMS sports car team, with his spot in IndyCar taken by media darling Danica Patrick. The most recent change came prior to '08 when Franchitti's seat was taken by Japanese rookie Hideki Mutoh.
As the 2008 season progressed, it appeared that AGR sorely missed Franchitti's veteran leadership and car-development skills. It also looked like the personable Scotsman was the key to diffusing tension between the Andretti Green drivers in the past. Kanaan and Marco Andretti openly feuded at midseason, and the festering ill feelings were put on display for all to see at Edmonton when a pit lane shouting match broke out after some poor teamwork between the drivers led to a poor result.
A postrace driver's meeting led by Michael Andretti calmed the atmosphere, and things settled down even more a couple of weeks later when Kanaan agreed to a long-term contract extension. With its four-driver lineup returning intact, can AGR regain its championship winning form?
That's going to be tough, especially with Franchitti returning to IndyCar as part of the rival Target/Ganassi team. But AGR can put itself back on the level of Ganassi or Penske in 2009 by using the following formula:
" 1. Support Kanaan as the No. 1 driver -- As much as Michael Andretti likes to say there is no No. 1 driver at AGR, there needs to be. Tony Kanaan has 13 IndyCar wins and a series championship; the rest of AGR's lineup has two (arguably lucky) victories. If AGR wants to win another championship, it needs to put its support behind TK -- at least in the short term until Andretti, Patrick and Mutoh develop into consistent front-runners. Plus it's a matter of respect, which the popular Brazilian deserves after serving as AGR's backbone for the last six years.
" 2. Make Marco a winner -- With all due respect to Danica, the young Andretti is much more likely to develop into a regular race winner and wingman for Kanaan. In fact, Marco is poised to have a breakout season, and it appears AGR is bringing in the heavy artillery to help make it happen. The vastly experienced Kyle Moyer is moving over to lead Andretti's No. 26 car, and Marco's new engineer is Peter Gibbons, who teamed with Michael at Newman/Haas Racing during the most successful phase of Michael's driving career. Marco improved on ovals in 2008 but regressed on road courses; the 21-year-old should develop into a top-six runner on all types of track in his fourth IndyCar campaign.
" 3. Hang on to Danica -- Patrick may not be a weekly threat to win races or the best development driver. But she brings the team a mind-boggling amount of publicity and marketability, which is why AGR -- and the IndyCar Series -- should do everything in their power to keep Danica in IndyCar when her contract expires at the end of this year.
Win or lose, Danica is always going to draw attention. If she stays with a proven top team like AGR where she is already comfortable, both parties should prove to be winners.
" 4. Make Hideki the role player -- Hideki Mutoh was rarely spectacular, but he was steady enough to emerge as the IndyCar Series 2008 Rookie of the Year. He was also fast enough to already establish himself as the best of a small group of Japanese drivers who have competed in American open-wheel racing over the past 15 years. On paper, Mutoh is clearly fourth on the AGR depth chart, but if the 26-year-old continues to mature at the rate he has during his first two years in the U.S., he could surprise a couple of his more celebrated teammates.
Mutoh is AGR's X factor, and he has a chance to surprise the team -- and the rest of the league -- in 2009.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.