AGR boys IRL’s biggest bust

All that noise about Danica Patrick jumping to NASCAR or being poached by rival Target Chip Ganassi could be a distraction for her Indy Racing League team. But where there is conjecture, rumour and the occasional nugget of truth related to the impending expiration of her contract with Andretti Green Racing, there is less talk about the dismal performance of the stable, or rather the three drivers in it who are not named Danica.

The AGR boys, collectively, have been the biggest bust of this IRL season. Marco Andretti is seventh in the drivers standings, Tony Kanaan is eighth and Hideki Mutoh 11th. That's terrible news for the only four-car team on the circuit, a conglomeration with championships and Indy 500 wins on a record that has not seen this many blots in years.

All four AGR pilots were awful in qualifying in Toronto two weeks ago, at a race owned by the team, no less. They saved a modicum of face by finishing sixth through 17th on race day, led as they have been all year by Patrick, but it's never a win-win situation for AGR.

Patrick makes just as many headlines lately for her thoughts on NASCAR and Ganassi's interest in her switching IRL teams next year. When asked Friday if Patrick would drive for him in 2010, owner Michael Andretti could only say, "I think so."

But it's not his call. Patrick is a pending free agent with a massive profile. She has had conversations with Ganassi and a NASCAR team, and she obviously has a desire to keep climbing the ranks. If she doesn't see that happening at a struggling AGR, her defection may only add to Andretti's rising frustration. On Friday, he frowned through two practice sessions as Mutoh led their struggling pack in 10th place during the first stint and the follies continued in the afternoon when Patrick's No. 7 was reduced to collateral damage. Dan Wheldon put his car into the wall and bounced back onto the track, where he and Patrick collided just one minute into the session. Kanaan was 11th to lead the team.

Clearly, it's not easy being Andretti Green anymore. "They've been struggling most of the season," IRL consultant and driver coach Al Unser Jr said last week. "You've been seeing them qualifying, kind of in the back half of the field, which is very, very surprising for AGR." They are a mid-pack team with a front-runner's budget and expectations. The disparate characteristics do not mix well, so they are shaking things up.

"It's not magic so we've just got to continue to work and go through it methodically and find out what we're missing, so that's what we're doing," said Michael Andretti. What they're doing at the Edmonton Indy is paying former Champ Car driver Oriol Servia to work with Kanaan and his engineer as a driving instructor. It's a move borne of desperation or forward thinking; take your pick. "I think it shows they're a little bit lost and confused, but they're willing to learn," said Justin Wilson, who drives for the much smaller Dale Coyne Racing team and was eighth-fastest in the afternoon.

"They're willing to listen to people and get advice. I think Oriol will help them a lot, but it will take time for his input to pay off." AGR started the season with a bang and Patrick was third in the Indy 500 in late May, but it sticks out as one of just four podiums in 10 races for a team used to its fair share of victories. As they search for answers, Servia comes on board with a decent pedigree, particularly in Edmonton, where he finished second in 2005 and fifth last year.

"It just gives us a little more information," said Andretti. "He works well with Tony, they're good friends. He's just giving us some ideas, and in (the afternoon) session he helped a lot with Tony." No kidding. Kanaan was 16th in the first practice, 11th in the second and shaved more than a second off his best lap time. Servia might well be a temporary tonic for a team in a funk. He was a breath of fresh air on the Champ Car circuit, and both his attitude and acumen will help Kanaan. "He's the one I have the closest (relationship with) and if I have to tell him that he stinks, I can and he won't take it bad," said a laughing Servia. "But I am working with anything, any driver, that I can." They could all use a fresh set of eyes.

"They have the right resources. They have the right people," said Servia. "But it's like every major team in every major sport. What you had the year before might be successful, so you don't change a thing and still it goes the complete other way. I understand why they are frustrated and they should be, because they should be at the front. I think the important thing is to react and they are reacting."

They reached out to him 10 days ago at a test at Mid-Ohio. Kanaan is comfortable having Servia on his side, since they have a time-tested friendship.

"He's a big help. He's watching. He drove here before," said Kanaan. "He can give you some tips so it is always good to have a driver on your side." But it is never good to need one as much as Kanaan does these days. "We went to a direction this year that probably wasn't the right one, so we're going back to what we had in the past," said Kanaan. "I can't talk to you about it. It's just a setup change."

What they need is a change of fortune, and if Servia can deliver down the stretch, he would love to think AGR would show their appreciation by offering him a seat in one of their cars.

Hey, if all the rumour, conjecture and nuggets of truth add up, there will be a vacancy. Edmonton Journal

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