29 July 2009

Whither Andretti Green?

The good news coming out of Edmonton for Andretti Green Racing is that Tony Kanaan will be ok to drive at Kentucky after a frightening car fire in the pits during the Rexall Edmonton Indy.

Is it in poor taste to call the subsequent coverage of the incident somewhat positive for the league? After all, a report on Kanaan's condition was on the front page of ESPN.com on Tuesday - I don't think it's "good" per se, when the highlights and headlines show a car fire, but then again, people are seeing IndyCar highlights on a network that has largely shunned the sport most of the season.

In other words, I'm not sure. But, after seeing Kanaan on the "Five Good Minutes" segment of Pardon the Interruption yesterday (even if it was just 2-and-a-half minutes), I'm inclined to think that this is kind of good for the series, in a morbid kind of way. It's certainly not good to set your drivers on fire, and I would not advocate it, but the series is receiving attention because Kanaan survived the experience and is more than willing to talk about it and promote the ICS, so that's good.

Right now, nothing seems to going well for Andretti Green Racing - at one point on Sunday, Versus ran a graphic showing where the Penske Racing cars stood - it was at 1st, 2nd, 4th. When the network showed the AGR stable, it read something like 10th, 11th, 14th, Out. So, for one of the league's premier teams to struggle so much, so consistently, is puzzling.

This certainly wasn't the season the team envisioned when the 2009 IndyCar Series season began. With Kanaan returning to lead the team, Danica Patrick building off of her first career win, and Marco Andretti seemingly poised to emerge as a threat to win more races, AGR had to be thinking they were in good shape to renew most of their contracts for 2010, but also to retain the sport's biggest free agent in Patrick.

However, as things look right now, Andretti Green has free-fallen from a perch near the top of the ICS mountain, regularly failing to challenge for wins, qualifying poorly, and not resembling the team that at one point set the standard for success in the IndyCar Series. That said, let's examine their season to this point and see how AGR might begin the climb back to success in the IndyCar Series.

We'll begin by looking at the team's veteran and leader, Tony Kanaan. I don't know the source of Kanaan's struggles since May (and I certainly hope it's not the fact that I openly root for him and own a Team 7-Eleven hat and koozie), but it seems like Kanaan's chassis have not been as good as they were in the beginning of the year. He openly criticized his first chassis at Indianapolis, used another one to qualify and then wrecked that car when something mysteriously broke in his car. Then, the slow Indianapolis chassis was used at Milwaukee, where it caught fire. Good times.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion, led the points chase after three races this season, posting a 5th at St. Pete, 3rd at Long Beach and a 3rd at Kansas. However, including the crash at Indianapolis (where he was running 3rd at the time), Kanaan has failed to finish five of the eight races in which he has participated, twice catching fire (though the Milwaukee status is listed as "mechanical") and dropping out three times due to contact (including once after leading 48 laps at Iowa).

His top finish sine Kansas is a 6th-place finish at Richmond, where he qualified 17th.

So what would help Kanaan return to form (aside from a change in luck)? Perhaps better qualifying, where he might not run as many risks of contact. Over his last six races, Kanaan has qualified an average of 13th, and in that time has not finished the race on three occasions (Iowa, Toronto, Edmonton). In his first five races, Kanaan qualified an average of 6th and finished three of those races. So qualifying better may help, but marginally it appears.

Curt Cavin, in his Indianapolis Star blog, speculated something similar, saying that Kanaan is hurt by not having another veteran on the team, saying:
Truthfully, I think everyone at AGR would be better off right now if they had a Herta or a Franchitti to help Kanaan with the setups. I'm just not sure Danica, Marco and/or Mutoh have enough experience for that.
AGR also addressed this at Edmonton, bringing in Oriol Servia to serve as a driver coach for Kanaan. Could it be that Servia finds his way into the AGR stable in 2010, adding another veteran to the team? I wouldn't be surprised.

Kanaan is a truly talented driver and one of the IndyCar Series' biggest personalities. His success helps the league, and while the summer of his discontent rolls on, I think he's due for a change in luck. Maybe that's all he needs.

With Kanaan addressed, let us look at the bright spot in the AGR season: Danica Patrick. Without actually competing for race wins thus far, Patrick has put together the type of consistent season a championship contender needs to win. Her consistency has resulted in top-10 finishes but not in podium finishes (except at Indianapolis, where, you will notice, they don't have a post-race podium).

In her 11 races so far, Patrick has placed in the top 10 eight times and the top 5 on five occasions. However, due to the consistency of her counterparts at Penske and Ganassi Racing in placing near the podium, Patrick has all but been mathematically eliminated from the championship chase.

In those 11 races, Patrick has led a grand total of 24 laps - all at Iowa. Outside of that date, the veteran has not led a race in 2009, another reason why she trails in the points chase.

I'm of the mind that Patrick's free agent status has not affected her or her team this season. With Michael Andretti calling her race strategy, Patrick has appeared to maximize her results this year, given that AGR seems a step behind both Penske and Ganassi when it comes to race setup.

With Patrick looking at all of her options in both IndyCar and NASCAR, I have trouble believing that she will jump to NASCAR without winning the Indianapolis 500. Because of this, I have trouble believing that she will stay with Andretti Green, too.

While AGR helped Patrick reach a career-best, third-place finish at Indianapolis this past May, the team appears to be moving backwards right now. On their best day, they may be able to compete with the red cars, but more times than not, a fifth-place finish is as good as it gets for AGR.

Which is why I see Danica Patrick moving to Ganassi Racing this offseason (so do plenty of other people, too.)

Ganassi shouldn't have a problem bringing Patrick on board - she will bring plenty of sponsorship, and I'm sure Target will love having her on the team (talk about sponsor activation, I think this might be a great fit). Patrick, on her end, will be moving up in teams, whether Ganassi becomes a three-car team in 2010. Ganassi, over the last ten years, has been a contender to win at Indianapolis, winning twice.

If Patrick can win at Indy, then moving to NASCAR in 2011 or 2012 and cashing in becomes a distinct possibility. And Ganassi just happens to own a NASCAR team (as does Roger Penske, but he already has a third driver in the stable). It almost makes too much sense to not happen.

So, we've eliminated one of AGR's drivers for 2010. We'll touch on possible replacements later.

Let's move on to Hideki Mutoh, who over the course of two weeks in June, looked like he was getting the hang of racing short ovals. Then the road and street courses came, and Mutoh has slid back to being the fourth-best driver at AGR.

The funny thing is, Mutoh has led the second-most laps of any driver at AGR in 2009. His 74 laps out front is second only to Kanaan's 80 laps led. Unfortunately for Mutoh, all of those laps came at Richmond, where the yellow flag breaks didn't go his way. In fact, in 11 starts, he has placed in the top 10 just five times and finished on the podium once (at Iowa - 3rd place).

The Japanese driver's best performance came in back-to-back weeks at Iowa and Richmond, when it was rumored that his Formula Dream sponsorship was in jeopardy of being pulled and given to former Formula 1 driver Takuma Sato.

However, the road and street courses continue to plague Mutoh - his average finish on those courses is 15th, while he is averaging a 9th-place result on ovals.

Given his seeming lack of progress in two-plus years, I question whether it is worth AGR's time to hold on to Mutoh. I know having sponsorship can supercede talent in today's racing world, but it might be time to cut bait with Mutoh at Andretti Green. Whether they can continue their partnership with Forumla Dream remains to be seen.

Ok, we've now gotten rid of two drivers from Andretti Green. Should we push it and propose eliminating a third?

Honestly, I don't see it happening. Marco Andretti, even though he is a free agent, does not have the options that Danica Patrick possesses. And as the co-owner's son, he will be given chances that will not be afforded to others on the team (see: Mutoh, Hideki). And quietly, Marco is putting together a season remarkably similar to Patrick's: In 11 starts, he has eight top-10 finishes and two top-5 results; to compare, Patrick has eight top-10s and five top-5s.

So, why is no one gushing over Marco Andretti and his consistency? Maybe it is because he set the bar high with his Rookie of the Year result in 2007, coming within a straightaway of winning at Indianapolis and capturing a win at Sonoma. Some of it has to do with his lineage - when you're the son of Michael Andretti and the grandson of Mario Andretti, people expect you to show up, qualify well, and win - consistently.

I don't know if AGR's equipment was better this season that Andretti would be near the front of more races, but he has been remarkable in his ability to finish races, bowing out of just two starts this year - a late wreck at St. Pete and the Mario Moraes-induced crash at Indianapolis. Young Marco has been running at the end of every other IndyCar race in 2009.

Looking ahead to 2010, where could Marco go? It probably depends on his sponsorship - more than any other driver at AGR, Andretti seem to bounce his primary sponsor around from week to week, indicating to me that he might not have the money to bring to another team. In the last three weeks, his primary sponsors have been Venom Energy Drink (Watkins Glen), NYSE/iShares (Toronto) and Mott's Clamato Cesar (Edmonton; what's a clamato caesar, you ask? I know I did, so I looked it up - click here for the details). I suspect he'll have his Meijer sponsorship this weekend at Kentucky.

Since many of those sponsors work with AGR as a whole and are not direct sponsors of Andretti (even Venom is owned by Dr. Pepper/Seven Up), I doubt Marco could make a move to another team work unless he finds new sponsorship. If he were to move, I would suggest that Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing take a look at him.

Think about this for a moment: if NHL Racing added Andretti and kicked Doornbos to the curb (even though his dad funds everything), they would have the most marketable young American driving tandem in years. Plus, both Marco's father and grandfather drove for the then-Newman/Haas Racing in the 1990's. The story lines and marketing potential this team could have, not to mention the rivalry they have and could build, would jump start some interest in the IndyCar Series. Plus, every weekend, fans could follow the Marco vs. his father's team story line.

Now, I have no knowledge of if this could happen, but it would certainly stir the pot and add some intrigue to the 2010 season.

The only other fit I see for Andretti is to explore the USF1 project, designed to put two American drivers into Formula 1 in 2010. Whether this actually happens or not is up for debate - without a F1 race in either Canada or the United States, I think securing sponsorship (and enough sponsorship to be competitive) will be difficult. My advice: stay away, for now. If you continue to improve, and USF1 is able to start up, you will have the chance to race F1 down the road.

So, Andretti stays (as much as I like the NHLR potential), along with Kanaan. We've sent Patrick to Ganassi Racing and Mutoh to wherever. AGR is a two-driver team as it stands. I am not going to advocate AGR returning to a four-car team - in this economy, I think their resources may be spread too thin as it is; but I think a three-car team could be successful. So, whom should they add?

If they want to add from within, they could simply promote IndyLights driver J.R. Hildebrand. The guy knows how win on the road and street courses (stats) and has posted three wins in 10 starts this season. If he and/or AGR can secure any sponsorship, he would be a solid choice.

If AGR wants to look outside, I would consider adding Oriol Servia or Takuma Sato. Though I suspect AGR would add Sato only if they absolutely needed to continue their Formula Dream sponsorship. (Another rumor - let Formula Dream sponsor Greg Beck's operations - he has had success with Roger Yasukawa and other Japanese drivers in the past - the team could use the money, too).

Seriva is currently serving as a driver coach for AGR and looked pretty good while driving for Rahal-Letterman Racing in the 2009 500. In 2008, he was one of the top newcomers to the series with KV Racing Technology. As a veteran, he could work easily with Kanaan and Andretti on race setup, providing more insight into the cars than Sato probably could. The only question with Servia would be one of sponsorship, but if Andretti-Green can get Mott's Clamato Ceasar to sponsor a car, then they can find sponsorship for Oriol Servia.

Given the choices between Hildebrand and Servia, I vote Servia. Let Hildebrand continue in IndyLights and finding sponsorship. If the economy continues to recover, AGR could return to a four-car operation in 2011, adding Hildebrand.

So there, we've tried to find a way to solve AGR's problems moving forward. Basically, I think they are spread too thin right now, hampering their results since they don't have the veteran experience they enjoyed in the Kanaan-Franchitti-Herta days. Creating a three-car team (and increasing their resources for those teams) with Kanaan-Andretti-Servia in 2010 seems to be their best option moving forward.

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