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HOUSTON – On just about any other day, Tony Kanaan's move to an expanded four-car Chip Ganassi Racing team would be big news in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
But Ganassi's signing of the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner (and 2004 IndyCar Series champion) was almost relegated to side-story status when Ganassi also revealed that his squad is switching from Honda to Chevrolet engines beginning in 2014.
Eight of of Ganassi's nine CART and IndyCar sanctioned championships were achieved with Honda power, as well as three of his four Indy 500 triumphs, in a relationship that dates to 1996.
|Chip Ganassi, right, puts his arm around driver Tony Kanaan after a news conference Friday.|
Although the Honda Indy car program has rebounded this year after a subpar 2013 campaign to match Chevrolet with eight wins apiece, Ganassi made the decision to align his Indy car team's engine supply with that of his NASCAR team.
Bringing one of Indy car racing's most talented and popular drivers into the fold only made the day sweeter for Ganassi.
"It wasn't easy to say goodbye to Honda and we've had a lot of great races and a lot of great wins together," Ganassi said. "We've had a great relationship.
"But we had somewhat of a difficult negotiation, I guess," he continued. "This Chevrolet thing came up and it just seemed to make so much sense with our involvement already. This isn't as much about going away from Honda as it is going with Chevrolet."
Ganassi came close to signing Kanaan in the summer of 2008, only to have the Brazilian decide to remain with Andretti Autosport. Two years later, Andretti and Kanaan lost sponsorship from 7-Eleven Stores, leaving Kanaan to sign a last-minute deal with KV Racing Technology prior to the 2011 season.
TK scored just one of his sixteen career Indy car race wins with KVRT, but it was a big one in this year's Indianapolis 500. With that team struggling to find sponsorship for 2014, Kanaan and Ganassi resumed their conversations from five years ago and this time brought them to a successful conclusion.
Kanaan will team with Ganassi's returning drivers Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball. His car will be sponsored by IT services provider NTT DATA.
"I feel blessed, but I also feel there was a lot of hard work that went into this," Kanaan said. "People don't think it pays off, but I always believed that. I had to be relentless and not permit any of the roadblocks they tried to put in my career.
"It's an honor to drive for a big organization like Chip's, and especially to bring in a new sponsor like NTT DATA," he added. "To capture a sponsorship these days is a huge accomplishment. I know all those guys well and it's going to be like a new home for me."
Ganassi's move to Chevrolet shocked the IndyCar community and leaves Honda searching for a new lead team. Honda reportedly only learned of Ganassi's departure in the last 24 hours.
"While this partnership is coming to an end, Honda and Honda Performance Development remain committed to achieving even greater IndyCar success in the future with our continuing and new partner teams," stated HPD President Art St. Cyr. "We remain committed to winning the 2013 Drivers' and Manufacturers' championships, and our collective efforts for the final three races will be entirely focused on accomplishing those objectives."
Initial speculation has centered on Andretti Autosport potentially switching to Honda. AA's predecessor, Team Green, used Honda engines in the CART series from 1997 prior to when Andretti bought the team and switched it to the Indy Racing League. AA was considered Honda's lead team from 2003-05, winning the championship with Kanaan in 2004 and Dan Wheldon in 2005 prior to a six year period from 2006-11 when all IndyCar Series competitors used Honda power.
Michael Andretti was not immediately available for comment.
One thing is for certain: Team Penske will remain in the Chevrolet camp. Roger Penske is a partial owner of Ilmor Engineering, the company that designs and produces the Chevrolet IndyCar engine.
"We are a Chevrolet team, absolutely," said Penske Racing President Tim Cindric. "We're not in that mix. In this sport, it's always interesting when you hear surprises, because there are so few surprises anymore. I didn't see it coming, to be honest.
"That may prompt a few reactions on the other front," Cindric added. "It might be a catalyst for some other things to happen. I think it will be interesting to see what cards fall after that. Certainly it's good for Chevrolet."
Although Ganassi drivers won four championships during the Honda sole-supply era, compared to one title for Penske and one for Andretti, Cindric welcomes adding his team's closest rival to the Chevrolet camp.
"Anytime your competition is running the same equipment that you are, I think everybody focuses on the differences in your human capital – the drivers," he said. "You know that they have the same tools as you have, so it helps you focus on what you can do and what's in your control to be better. In a lot of ways you welcome that, because you have to have the confidence in your people to help differentiate when the equipment is the same.
"It will make both teams better, in my opinion."