INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tony Kanaan walked into a whole new world when he showed up at Indianapolis two weeks ago.
As the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, the longtime fan favorite was celebrated all over town and welcomed everywhere he went.
As the driver of the No. 10 car for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, however, Kanaan feels some pressure. The fun-loving 37-year-old Brazilian wants to add to the legacy his friends created in the same car.
“My biggest motivation this year is I am driving a car that won this race a few times,” he said. “Three of my best friends have driven this car, (Alex) Zanardi, Dan (Wheldon) and Dario (Franchitti), and Chip gave me an opportunity this late in my career that I don’t think it comes around that often. I don’t think I need more motivation then that.”
Kanaan never dreamed he would be in this position when he left KV Racing Technology to sign with Ganassi’s powerhouse team last October.
Instead, he expected to be part of a four-car team that included 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon of New Zealand, young American Charlie Kimball and a reunion with his old teammate, Franchitti. But two days after Kanaan’s deal was announced, Franchitti sustained a severe concussion in a crash at Houston. Doctors advised the three-time Indy winner from Scotland to retire.
A month after that, Franchitti asked Kanaan to replace him in the cockpit of Ganassi’s No. 10 car.
Kanaan certainly has a resume to suggest he can live up to the challenge. He has 16 career IndyCar wins, 112 top-five finishes, won the 2004 series title and became the first driver in series history to finish every lap of every race.
But living up to the legacy of the No. 10 car is entirely different.
“Those are massive shoes to fill,” new teammate Ryan Briscoe said. “I’m sure he wishes he could have jumped into the car and gone out and won the first four races. But there’s so much to learn and the team had Scott on board for so long and Dario on board for so many years, I feel like the cars were tailored to them a little differently.”
It led to a slow start.
Kanaan has finished sixth, 18th, ninth and 10th in 2014, has only had one front-row start, second in the season opener at St. Petersburg, and had even more trouble last weekend at his favorite track, Indianapolis.
The four Ganassi cars struggled so badly on the first day of qualifying last weekend, that none made it into the pole shootout. On Sunday, Kanaan found enough speed to post a four-lap qualifying average of 229.922 mph. He’ll start 16th, the inside of Row 6, in Sundays’ 33-car starting grid.
Kanaan and Dixon found some more speed Friday, finishing with the top times in the final practice before the race. But Kanaan was asking his new teammate, who will start 11th on Sunday, about the slow ramp up.
“I kept talking about it, ‘Is this normal over here?'” he wondered. “(I) used to start in the front, lead, have dominant cars … for me it was different because also my expectations were much higher than 16th, especially with this car. But after all was said and done, there was nothing I could do about that. Nobody remembered where I qualified last year, they remembered where I finished.”
For Kanaan, Indy will forever be a place where he celebrated his greatest victory in 2014 after 12 consecutive years of frustrating problems and vexing near misses. He has become a semi-regular at Pacers games, has had his image engraved on the Borg-Warner Trophy, has been a prominent fixture in television and radio ads, and is one of the most popular drivers in Gasoline Alley.
“I think I fooled myself the last couple of years saying that I was OK with the fact that I might not win this race in my career, and it changed everything when I crossed that finish line,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful feeling. It fulfilled my career dream. I landed in a very good job because of it. Trying to take advantage of it again.”
At times, he’s basked in this victory lap. At other times, he feels he is trying to live up to the expectations that come with being a defending Indy champ in a revered car with a well-funded team.
Franchitti’s long shadow still looms large, too. The 41-year-old Scot won four IndyCar championships including three straight from 2009-11, and still works with the team in a consulting capacity. On Sunday, Franchitti will lead the drivers down the front straightaway as the celebrity pace-car driver, then turn his attention to watching Kanaan in the No. 10.
“To drive that car is a lot of pressure,” Kanaan said.
Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.
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