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AGR out to prove their worth

The best, and possibly most prophetic, pre-season quote came from none other than Tony Kanaan himself

Acknowledging the challenges facing Andretti Green Racing in light of recent shifts in the IRL IndyCar Series landscape, Kanaan put it simply.

"When you're in a team that wins 10 or 11 races a year, it's great, but it's a little different for the people on the outside," he said.

"Nobody enjoys it when [Michael] Schumacher wins [in F1] all the time, and for sure nobody else was enjoying it when we were winning all the time."

He's talking, of course, about inequality and how it's addressed, the underlying premise as the IndyCar Series prepares for Sunday's season opening Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The premise is both mandated and natural, a combination of circumstance and an intent by league officials to make things as close to the same for everybody as possible.

If you're AGR, that's not a good premise. If you're everybody else, it is.

To understand the changes that led to the IRL's newfound concept of equality for everyone, one must understand the progression of activity since the 2005 season finale in October.

Two of the IRL's three engine suppliers - GM Racing and Toyota - left the series; GM as planned, Toyota with a year remaining on its contract.

That left Honda as the league's sole engine manufacturer, which, in a roundabout way, left Andretti Green, winner of the last two IRL titles, in the lurch.

IRL and Honda officials concluded that Honda's psuedo-factory ties with AGR wouldn't be fair, so the manufacturer and its favorite team had to scale back their hand-in-hand relationship.

Wind-tunnel time and chassis development were two of the most critical Honda-supported elements AGR lost in the transfer of power - along with a boatload of money - but they also lost the defending series champion.

Dan Wheldon, whose record six wins and runaway IRL championship in 2005 pushed AGR's two-year dynasty to a ridiculous 19-for-33, left the team in November for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, one of two heavyweight teams - Marlboro Team Penske being the other - that left Toyota for Honda at the end of the season. With the engine and driver change, Ganassi stand to gain enormously.

"We can see light at the end of the tunnel for a change," said Ganassi driver Scott Dixon, who won the IRL championship in 2003.
 
"It's not the same promises of things coming that never come. For the last two years, we were walking down the same road, and nothing had changed. Finally there have been big changes."

The new landscape also favours Penske, who were best of class in '05, winning three times with the Toyota and managing to place their drivers - Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves - among the top six in the final standings, in spite of a noticeable lack of horsepower.

"There were certain times when we felt like our hands were tied and you couldn't do much about it, and there were other times when we had opportunities and didn't take advantage of them," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing.

"Our focus is on ourselves, really. It's not on everybody else. It's continuing to do the things that we think are right. That philosophy has proved well that past five or six years."

While the battle among resurgent Ganassi and Penske and deflated AGR is the obvious plotline in 2006, other interesting sidebars lie in waiting.

Can Rahal Letterman Racing win with the Panoz chassis? Will Vitor Meira and Panther and their last-minute revival be the surprise of the season? Will Danica Patrick win a race?

How will the unretirements of Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr. and Eddie Cheever Jr. play out in the Indianapolis 500?

Will Scott Sharp's renaissance with Fernandez Racing continue? Can Tomas Scheckter turn Vision Racing into a winner - and what will be the reaction if he does?

When all is questioned and re-questioned, though, the focus returns to the same fixture of the past two years: Andretti Green Racing.

Marco Andretti has replaced Wheldon, and Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta still remain serious threats to win the championship.

But all agree that, if they do win the championship, it certainly won't be in the dominating fashion of Kanaan's title in 2004 or Wheldon's in 2005.

In AGR's case, equality does little more than serve as motivation.

"It's given everybody a new motivation to prove that it wasn't just the Honda engine," Michael Andretti said.

"Now that everybody is on equal footing, I know everybody on this team wants to go out there and prove that we can do what we did the last two years.

"There have been a few negatives that have hit the team, but we're turning them into positives."

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