AVONDALE, La. (AP) — At 40, Tony Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar series.
He’s also one of the most accomplished — and apparently still one of the fastest.
Kanaan’s strong early season form continued Thursday when he turned a lap at 125.058 mph to top practice for the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana.
“It’s rewarding for me because you’re trying to stay on top of your game as long as you can,” said Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner and 2004 series champion who is set to make his 296th start this Sunday.
“By the time we get to (the Indianapolis 500), it will be my 300th Grand Prix, which is quite a remarkable achievement,” the Brazilian said. “So that means if I’m around for this long, I’m still good enough.”
Now in his 18th season, Kanaan is coming off a third-place finish in IndyCar’s opening race two weeks ago in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he was the only driver in the top five not racing for Team Penske.
After dominating St. Petersburg’s street circuit, the Penske cars have not looked quite as strong on the 2.74 mile, 13-turn road course built on cypress swamps about 15 miles southwest of New Orleans.
Scott Dixon was third-fastest, giving Chip Ganassi Racing two of the top three cars, split by Penske driver and defending series champion Will Power. Sebastien Bourdais was fourth quickest for KVSH Racing and Penske’s Simon Pagenaud was fifth.
Top times were posted in hot, dry conditions in the first practice of the day. The second session was delayed and shortened by rain, and cars were slower on the damp track.
Power had the fastest average speed of the second practice period, at 123.038 mph, but several drivers, including Kanaan and Dixon, didn’t bother running a hot lap in that session.
Power said he “didn’t learn much” to help engineers with his setup during Session 2, but did get a better sense of what track conditions could be like if rain returns, as forecast, during the weekend.
“It could be like that in qualifying,” Power said. “I guess you get an understanding of where the puddles sit and that’s about it.”
Juan Pablo Montoya, who won in St. Petersburg, was 10th quickest in practice.
“Today our first practice was a rough practice, but I think that’s a plus,” Montoya said. “It makes everybody realize we’ve got to work hard.”
For Kanaan, the practice results provided a measure of encouragement that Ganassi cars may be more of a threat to win this weekend.
“We have to step up,” Kanaan said. “Penske showed their hands in St. Pete and they have four extremely good drivers (Power, Pagenaud, Montoya and Helio Castroneves) and they’re a very good team. So it’s going to be up to us here to give them a run for their money.”
As for the manufacturers, Chevrolet continued to hold a decided advantage over Honda.
James Hinchcliffe was quickest among the Hondas with the eighth-best lap.
Most drivers gave the track good reviews for its flowing turns and long front and back straights, which are expected to produce decent passing opportunities under breaking in turns 1 and 10.
“It’s great. I think flows really well. I think it’s a fast race track,” Montoya said. “We’ll see how it races.”
Power called the track “really cool.”
“Two road courses that I absolutely love are this track and the Indy road course,” Power said. “They are just a lot of fun and have very similar flows.”
Drivers will get one more practice session, followed by qualifying, on Saturday.
And while pressure will mount on some drivers to improve quickly — particularly the younger, unproven ones — Kanaan expects the more level-headed, analytical approach he’s acquired through years of experience to serve him well.
“As you get older and learn how to race and stuff, the pressure is a lot less,” Kanaan said. “I still want to win, but now I know I can. So that doubt that I had is not there anymore. I enjoy every day.”
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