It's been a story all year, but things may finally be coming to a boiling point between the four full-time IZOD IndyCar Series drivers at Andretti Autosport.
Kentucky seemed to bring out the worst in the team, when their three lead drivers - Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, and Marco Andretti - all began to race each other like rivals and not teammates. In fact, while Kanaan gave a hearty congratulations to third-place finisher Dan Wheldon after the race, he had nothing for his AA teammates.
It's a far cry from 2005, when the dream team of Kanaan, Wheldon, Dario Franchitti, and Bryan Herta swept the top four spots at St. Petersburg, won the Indianapolis 500 with Wheldon, and otherwise destroyed all competition.
Last year was AA's first winless season in IndyCar. Patrick may have finished a career-best fifth in points, but she couldn't find victory lane as she had in Motegi two years ago. This led to a massive restructuring of the business formerly known as Andretti Green Racing, with the "Green" (Kim Green and Kevin Savoree) taking over the race promotion aspect of the business and team owner/namesake Michael Andretti continuing to operate the race team.
The results have been better this year - Kanaan won at Iowa, while new driver/IZOD darling Ryan Hunter-Reay took the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Hunter-Reay, Kanaan, and Andretti rank sixth, seventh, and eighth in points, respectively - the best drivers in the series not to be employed by Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske.
But Patrick's been woefully off the pace, regularly finishing towards the back in road and street course events and not giving strong oval performances consistently enough to put her in the top 10 in points. It's been a trying year for the all-world media personality anyway, with her well-documented stock car struggles adding to the problem, but a six-position drop in the standings after last year's consistent run is a huge problem.
The worst part for Andretti is that all three of these feuding drivers are locked into their contracts for the foreseeable future, while the team's other drivers are looking for the right sponsorship combinations.
Patrick's contract runs through next year and contains an option for 2012, though you wonder if she'll attempt to jump to NASCAR full-time if the money is right. Andretti has a long-term deal that is basically guaranteed by nature of his father owning the team. Kanaan and the 7-Eleven team have been together since 2003, making them one of the longest-tenured driver and team combinations in the sport.
Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay's future remains uncertain for the umpteenth consecutive year due to sponsor concerns. Andretti also has under contract an Irish driver by the name of Adam Carroll, whose prowess in A1GP should have landed him a ride in Formula 1 this year. Andretti, which operated the American team in the nationality-based racing series, became familiar with the driver as he won the series' final championship. Current Andretti Firestone Indy Lights driver Charlie Kimball raced for the team in A1GP, and they have always been high on his talent; he sits third in points in that series with four runner-up finishes in 12 starts this year.
Put simply, all three of those feuding drivers could be replaced, and the team would probably be much better off.
Hunter-Reay is nothing less than a ray of sunshine on AA. He's shown a willingness, nevermind the ability, to work with every driver on the squad, and perhaps it is that good karma that has rendered him the team's best driver this year. He's also IZOD's golden boy, having held a personal services contract with the brand for a while now, and is without contest the best American open-wheel driver in the world right now.
Meanwhile, the feuding between his three teammates all year has been a cancer that must be eating away at owner Michael Andretti's patience. Earlier this year, Andretti compared his job to that of a "kindergarten teacher" in an interview with Versus' Jack Arute. Again, it's a far cry from 2005's dream team.
RIght now, all AA can do is tough out the next two races while attempting to figure out what to do about next season. Without all of the stupid infighting that has plagued the team all season, they may have had somebody challenging for the championship. Somebody may need to leave the team before this can happen.
Obviously, the two weak links are Marco, who hasn't won a race since 2006 and occasionally seems disinterested on-track, and Danica, who is showing once and for all this year that she isn't the driver the media has hyped her up to be. But of course, these are the two drivers with the most ironclad contracts of all, being family and a megastar, respectively.
But you have to wonder if the team would take the financial hit to buy Danica out of her contract and let her try NASCAR full-time. Remember that the announcer at the ESPY Awards called her "NASCAR's Danica Patrick," not "IndyCar's Danica Patrick." NASCAR, which is already experienced at hyping up popular drivers during their on-track struggles (see Earnhardt Jr., Dale), is probably doing more with the Danica brand than IndyCar right now. On one hand, that's a problem for IndyCar, which could use all the publicity it can get; on the other, she's already established herself in IndyCar and is far less of a novelty in the open-wheel cars these days than she is as a transitioning rookie stock car driver.
Provided that the sponsors are willing to stick with the team, this opens up a spot for either Carroll, Kimball, or even Wheldon (now a free agent) to return to AA. Wheldon's "gone home" before, per se, as the current Panther Racing driver actually made his IndyCar debut in 2002 with Panther before replacing the retiring Michael Andretti in 2003.
It becomes far stickier to try and buy out your own son's contract, especially when Venom Energy stepped in to save that marginally funded team last year. Meanwhile, Kanaan has shown he's still got it as the second-best driver on that team, and it would be a mistake to let him go - especially because Penske would likely snap him up as a replacement for Ryan Briscoe, who has been rumored to be on the hot seat for a few weeks now.
Watching Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, you can see a certain chemistry between the drivers. Penske's trio of Briscoe, Helio Castroneves, and Will Power have done interviews and appeared on TV together, and the team is (barring Edmonton) often all smiles. Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti get down to business for Ganassi and stay out of each other's way, showing a great respect for one another at all times.
It's become clear that the current driver ensemble at Andretti is never going to find said chemistry. Somebody has to go. None of the team's current drivers are irreplaceable, like Sam Hornish was for Panther and Sebastien Bourdais was for Newman/Haas. Nobody currently on the team has taken Andretti to heights that it will never see again without them - in fact, they've mostly taken the team to new lows that can be done without.
The Andretti drivers need to understand that they can be replaced. The series' closest thing to an all-American team could do worse than taking a gamble and doing just that.