- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony Kanaan's stint on the unemployment line didn't last long enough for the Brazilian to collect any benefits.
Instead, the 2004 IndyCar champion received an early Christmas present when he teamed up with his friend Gil de Ferran to drive de Ferran Dragon Racing's entry in the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series.
Kanaan, 35, is one of the most popular and successful drivers in the IndyCar Series. But after a sponsorship shuffle at Andretti Autosport, that team determined it could not honor the terms of a five-year contract Kanaan signed in August 2008.
Rather than take the team to court or take his chances on Andretti lining up a sponsor to replace longtime backer 7-Eleven stores, Kanaan chose to take a buyout and test the market.
Not surprisingly, a driver with his pedigree didn't last long as a free agent. De Ferran, who formed de Ferran Motorsports in 2008 to compete in the American Le Mans Series before joining forces with Jay Penske's Luczo Dragon Racing last year, saw the opportunity to upgrade from a promising young Brazilian (Raphael Matos) to a proven winner.
Matos won the 2008 Indy Lights championship, but his two years in Indy cars have fallen somewhat short of expectations. He finished 14th in the IndyCar standings in 2010 for de Ferran Dragon, topped by a pair of fourth-place finishes.
"Tony brings many things to the table," de Ferran said on a media teleconference to confirm Kanaan's signing. "We are a young and developing operation with big ambitions. He's a champion and a race winner who has driven all sorts of cars in many situations.
"No doubt he'll bring speed and determination with a lot of experience to help us in the short term."
After eight years driving for Michael Andretti's team, Kanaan was shocked to part ways following such a long and successful run. But he's eager to get a fresh start with a lean, hungry operation.
"I want to call Gil 'Santa' because this couldn't come at a better time," Kanaan said. "Being a father, it was hard to explain to my son that I was asking for a gift just like he was.
"Now I can tell him what kind of car I'm going to drive next year, so I got what I wanted for Christmas."
Kanaan's 2004 IndyCar title was one of the most dominant in the fifteen years the series was sanctioned by the Indy Racing League. He is the only driver in series history to complete every single lap during a season, notching three wins and top-five finishes in 15 of 16 races that year.
Kanaan's 85-point margin of victory during his 2004 championship season is the second largest in the history of IRL sanction. He has won 14 IndyCar races since 2003, and he also scored one CART- sanctioned race win during his six years in that series.
In many respects, Kanaan is returning to his CART roots. For much of his time in CART, he drove for smaller, one-car teams including Tasman Motorsports and Mo Nunn Racing.
It's bound to be a culture shock after his long tenure with Andretti, which with four cars is the largest team in the IndyCar Series.
"It's a big challenge for both of us but I'm enjoying every minute of it," Kanaan said. "When I showed up to test Gil's car at Sebring, I said, 'Where is everybody?' and Gil said, 'This IS everybody!' But the test went really well. I liked the people and saw what I wanted in a race team. That made it much easier to make my decision.
"It's like I'm downsizing three times compared to what I have been used to, but I just have to get used to it. I'm going to have all the advantages to myself."
De Ferran Dragon has already announced plans to run IndyCar veteran Davey Hamilton in three races in 2011, including the Indianapolis 500.
The team may run a full-time second car, possibly with Matos.
De Ferran, who won the 2000 and 2001 CART Indy car championships as well as the 2003 Indianapolis 500 during his successful driving career, knows that the pressure on his team to perform has increased by signing a driver of Kanaan's stature.
"It definitely increases the expectations, but that's what we're here for," de Ferran said. "I was asked the same question when I joined Team Penske [in 2000]. You work all your life to put yourself in that position, and this is a little bit similar.
"Having Tony around, we were able to secure one of the best talents in the series and I was really excited when I felt there was an opportunity to sign him up," he added. "This is a major coup for de Ferran Dragon Racing and I am sure his contribution to the team will be invaluable to our development and future success."
Despite cutting ties with Kanaan, Andretti Autosport has indicated it will still run four cars in the 2011 IndyCar Series. The team has Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and Ryan Hunter-Reay under contract, and Dan Wheldon has been tipped to return to the team with which he won the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar championship if sponsorship can be found.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.