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Ganassi ups ante with Briscoe

INDIANAPOLIS -- Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske are very different men, but as champion racing team owners, they have one thing in common:

Neither is willing to rest on his laurels.

Penske demonstrated as much a couple of months ago by hiring Juan Pablo Montoya to drive his third IndyCar Series entry in 2014. On Friday, Ganassi upped the ante by nominating Ryan Briscoe to drive his revived fourth Indy car, teaming with Charlie Kimball, Tony Kanaan and defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon.

Kanaan, a new recruit to the Ganassi organization, will slide into the No. 10 car vacated by the retired Dario Franchitti. Briscoe, meanwhile, will drive the No. 8 NTT DATA-sponsored entry originally intended for Kanaan prior to Franchitti's career-ending accident in October.

In an interesting twist, new Penske driver Montoya has longtime ties to Ganassi, having driven Indy cars for him in 1999-2000 and NASCAR stock cars from 2007 to the end of the 2013 season.

Briscoe, meanwhile, started his Indy car career with Ganassi in 2005 before joining the Penske organization for a career that brought him success in ALMS sports cars and seven race wins in the IndyCar Series.

The arms war is well and truly on between Indy car racing's two most successful team owners, and the movement of drivers back and forth between the two legendary teams shows that a bit of a needle exists between the pair.

On paper, both teams appear much stronger with their new additions heading into 2014. But the edge may go to Ganassi, who in Briscoe is getting a more polished and experienced driver than the one who showed some speed but crashed a lot of cars in 2005 during his rookie IRL Indy car campaign.

Briscoe was a full-time Penske Indy car driver from 2008 to 2012 and he came very close to winning the 2009 IndyCar Series championship before a pit lane spinout at Motegi, Japan, was a factor in Franchitti stealing the title at the final round.

The Australian returned to sports cars with Level 5 Motorsports in 2013, but Ganassi brought him back in to run the Indianapolis 500, kindling a relationship with NTT DATA.

When injuries suffered in the accident at Houston forced Franchitti to step out of the cockpit, Ganassi was left scrambling to fill an unexpected vacancy. Working in conjunction with sponsors Target and NTT DATA, the decision was made to shift Kanaan into the No. 10 Target car that tasted so much success when driven by his friends Franchitti and Dan Wheldon.

NTT DATA would also pick up on an existing relationship with Briscoe.

"It's always refreshing when you have partners that get the big picture and both Target and NTT DATA understand that," Ganassi said. "This is the best of both worlds. We not only get the driver that we wanted to add to our team in Ryan Briscoe, but in addition, we are able to put them in the cars that I felt were the most appropriate.

"The news couldn't really be better for all of our teams."

Kanaan shared a story about how when Franchitti was strongly advised by doctors to terminate his driving career, the Scotsman told him he wished who his replacement would be.

The pair of former IndyCar Series champions were teamed together at what was then called Andretti Green Racing from 2003-07.

"I remember one of the toughest times this year when Dario was in my house in Florida doing all the tests to see if he was going to be able to drive," Kanaan said. "I didn't know how to talk to my best friend, when he broke the news to me.

"He looked at me in the face and said, 'You know, it would be really cool if you could drive the Target car and replace me.'"

"I'm happy -- I'm extremely excited," Kanaan added. "It's a hard shoe to fill. There's a lot of good history in that car. Hopefully we'll be able to make more history."

Briscoe expressed his delight at returning to a full-time Indy car seat in the most successful team in the sport over the past 18 years.

"I feel like one of the luckiest guys out there at the moment," said Briscoe. "This is sort of full circle. The first Indy car I ever drove was Chip's back in 2004 and it's been a roller-coaster ride since then, with a lot of great experiences all over the place.

"I've driven a lot of great race cars, but nothing beats being back here. It's time to get to work."

Some observers believe Ganassi took the conservative route by hiring Briscoe to drive his fourth car, taking a solid, proven Indy car winner instead of taking a gamble on a younger Formula 1 cast-off who might potentially have more upside.

But in terms of chemistry, camaraderie and the overall contribution to the team concept, Briscoe is a smart choice.

By the same token, Penske's surprising decision to bring Montoya on board is more of a gamble. If he performs to his past standard in Indy cars, a fit and motivated Montoya has the potential to have the same kind of impact he had nearly 15 years ago.

But as hard as he has been working out (losing a reported 30-plus pounds), is it realistic to think that Montoya, at age 38, can run with the likes of Power, Dixon, Castroneves and Kanaan after being away for a dozen years?

One thing is for certain: No matter what happens with the rest of the IndyCar Series field, the battle within a battle between the Penske and Ganassi teams is more intense and more intriguing than ever. Too bad we have to wait nearly four months for the on-track fight to begin.