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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Opinion: Andretti Going Out on a Limb for 2011 and Beyond

Ryan Hunter-Reay chose to break the news on Twitter.

"Thanks to all of you! Very happy to continue with a great team. Lots of work to do now, we're up for it," Hunter-Reay tweeted to his nearly 10,000 followers, after signing a two-year deal to remain in the IZOD IndyCar Series with Andretti Autosport, the team that picked him up at the beginning of this season.

Hunter-Reay will look to improve on a 2010 season that saw a victory in the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and a career-best seventh place points finish. To that end, he will spend time testing at Barber Motorsports Park for the next couple of days. "Testing in October is a first for me," he joked, referring to his longtime career path of signing one-year contracts just before the season's start.

But as Andretti retains one of its top two drivers from the previous season, the other one says farewell. After eight years spent driving the No. 11 7-Eleven Dallara-Honda, Tony Kanaan will say goodbye to the team. Kanaan leaves behind a record of 14 wins, over 100 top-10s, and the 2004 IndyCar championship.

Kanaan was, for the past few years, the undisputed leader of the four-car Andretti brigade, at least as far as seniority was concerned. His help with car setups proved immensely valuable to his teammates, and he is perhaps the best mid-pack starter in the sport, frequently passing half a dozen cars on the first lap after subpar qualifying runs.

This year, however, was an unpleasant one to say the least for the Andretti brigade. After a winless 2009 season, an offseason restructuring was designed to strengthen Andretti's racing operations. The team scored two wins, but as had happened for the past few years, driver infighting threatened to tear the team apart.

The Andretti dream team of 2005 they were not. Kanaan, Marco Andretti, and Danica Patrick once again proved that they were an unstable combination prone to feuding on the track and off. Kanaan's frustrations with Patrick - and vice versa - were well-documented all season. Only Hunter-Reay really managed to keep out of the mess and go about his business while maintaining solid relationships with all of his teammates.

That's why he's back for 2011 and beyond. Unfortunately for Kanaan, he became a victim of the money in racing. Despite being the bottom two performers on the Andretti team, Patrick and Andretti have two of the biggest sponsorship contracts in the sport tied to them.

Hunter-Reay, like Kanaan, went into the offseason with no sponsorship, with both of their 2010 primary backers shifting their marketing dollars to Patrick's car, allowing them greater exposure at a lower price. But at a similar level of performance and assumedly a much lower price, Hunter-Reay was easier to retain.

Therefore, it was easy to figure out whose $3 million contract was going to be terminated.

Now Kanaan becomes the most coveted open-wheel free agent in years. Just about every mid-level team in the sport is looking at him with designs on how he can take him to the next level. Kanaan is a warrior that knows how to set up a racecar, weave through traffic, and take a car to the end. Plenty of teams would love to have him to mentor their young drivers.

He'll be in IndyCar in 2011, undoubtedly. KV Racing Technology has two fully-sponsored seats open for next year, carrying the Lotus backing, and after this season's crashfest, owner Jimmy Vasser would certainly love to have a driver that doesn't tear up equipment in one of his cars. Brazilian countryman and Kanaan's former CART rival Gil de Ferran, who leads de Ferran Dragon Motorsports, would love to have Kanaan to mentor another young Brazilian, Raphael Matos, who could really use a teammate. The possibilities go on and on.

The real question is, what will Andretti do without a bona fide lead driver?

Let me rephrase. Performance-wise, Hunter-Reay is lead driver-caliber. He's a proven race winner and will be a championship contender for years to come. But he doesn't quite fit the leader role the way that Kanaan does, in that he's not at the stage of his career where other Andretti drivers are going to look up to him as their mentor. He's been at Andretti the shortest amount of time, for one, and he's also only been in IndyCar about as long as his teammates.

But Andretti doesn't look likely to find a replacement for Kanaan in the fourth car. There is no setup driver anymore. There's one championship-caliber race car driver and two decent drivers that have less than stellar reputations with the IndyCar faithful. Marco still gets criticized from time to time about his level of commitment to the sport. Danica gets it no matter where she turns, especially with her NASCAR experimentation.

Simply put, team owner Michael Andretti has a lot of guts going with the team he has right now for 2011 and beyond.

Perhaps it won't matter. Perhaps with less infighting, the entire team will take its performance up a notch. Kanaan was a different breed of driver than Patrick and Andretti. He was undoubtedly the best driver, statistically speaking, on the team. But he had different expectations and needs than everybody else. Not that those needs were any better or worse intrinsically than those of his teammates, they just didn't mesh.

And perhaps, as the undisputed leader on another team, Kanaan will take somebody else to the upper echelons of the sport, or at least a top-10 spot in the final standings. Maybe Raphael Matos, Mike Conway, or some other up-and-comer will benefit far more from Kanaan's advice and leadership. Maybe they'll be more patient and easier to work with than Patrick and Andretti were.

It's always sad when any sort of long-term relationship ends. But maybe, just this once, things will work out better for both sides. Maybe the current Andretti trio will mesh beautifully. Maybe Kanaan will be more appreciated elsewhere.

And maybe, we'll see one of the best rivalries that IndyCar has had in a long time next year.

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