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IndyCar: Tony Kanaan feeling re-energized, reinvigorated with move to A.J. Foyt Racing

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Tony Kanaan may be 43 now, but he’s acting as if he’s 23.

The veteran IndyCar driver has been re-energized and reinvigorated with his off-season move to A.J. Foyt Racing.

Sure, this is his 21st season in Indy car competition, but Kanaan feels he’s in the right place and the right situation to not only regain some of his luster of old, but also to help turn around a team that has struggled for far too long.

“I’ve driven for a number of big names, including Michael Andretti and Chip Ganassi,” Kanaan told MotorSportsTalk. “Now, to drive for A.J., it’s been a dream come true, to be honest.

“I’m going to be one of the few drivers that can say how many motor racing legends I’ve driven for in my life. With A.J., it’s been a great experience – extremely colorful at times, I should say, because he’s A.J. (he said with a laugh).

“The best way to put it is at this stage of my career, it’s really cool I got to do this. Obviously, there are a lot more things that have to come with it, like being successful and making the team successful, but this is one of those things that I can really say, ‘Man, this is really cool that I got to do it.’”

Kanaan moved to A.J. Foyt Racing after his contract expired with Chip Ganassi Racing, for whom he had raced for the previous four seasons.

It was a tough cut for Ganassi, but he had to trim his four-team organization to just two for 2018. Some observers felt that could be the end of the road for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

But Foyt threw the veteran driver from Brazil a lifeline, knowing that Kanaan could bring a great deal to the team, particularly since Kanaan has been one of the most consistent drivers in IndyCar over the years.

From 2003 through 2017, Kanaan won one championship (2004), the Indianapolis 500 (2013), finished six times in the top-five, eight other times in the top-10 and has never finished lower than 11th (including last season).

Foyt felt Kanaan still had a lot of tread left on his tires and signed him to a multi-year deal. Not only would it be good for the team to have a former champion as a motivator, he also would serve as a great mentor to young teammate and fellow Brazilian Matheus Leist (photo above), who is 19.

The pair clicked immediately, which could immediately be seen in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Kanaan and Leist were consistently among the top runners in practice and qualifying and showed great promise heading into the race.

Unfortunately, Leist got into an early crash, ending his day (finished 24th), but Kanaan soldiered on to an 11th place finish.

It was the latest chapter in the evolution of A.J. Foyt Racing. The team made a concerted effort in the offseason to not only bring in Kanaan and Leist, but invested a significant amount of capital to not only grow the organization, but to improve equipment and expand behind the scenes personnel.

All for one very big reason.

“The expectations are high, but we have to keep our feet on the ground,” Kanaan said. “As soon as I joined the team, one of the first things I told A.J. is ‘we have to turn this situation around.’

“He wasn’t happy with the results, the team wasn’t doing well, we brought a bunch of new people in, it was a huge change. But huge changes sometimes take times.

“We performed as good as we wanted to do and as we expected in the first race in practice and qualifying at least. Obviously, we can’t predict what’s going to happen in the race, racing is racing, but the expectations are high.”

Kanaan welcomes the challenge to bring the Foyt organization back to prominence. It’s been a long time coming, indeed: the last driver for Foyt to finish in the top 10 was another Brazilian driver, Airton Dare, who ended up ninth in 2002.

“For this year, my goal is to get a couple podium finishes, maybe a race win, but if we finish in the top eight in the championship, that’ll be a huge improvement from last year,” Kanaan said.

By comparison, Foyt’s two drivers in 2017 struggled. Carlos Munoz finished 16th in the final standings, while Conor Daly was 18th.

But Kanaan is also realistic. He knows he and Leist aren’t going to turn things around overnight.

“You can’t expect in IndyCar, with all the good teams and good drivers, you can’t say we’re going to come in and dominate in one year,” Kanaan said. “It’s going to take time.

“But as long as we’re moving forward and keep improving, that’s what A.J. wants and that’s what we need to do.”

His overall performance at St. Petersburg has Kanaan especially looking forward to the next two races.

In five career starts at ISM Raceway in suburban Phoenix, Kanaan has two wins (2003 and 2004), three podiums and one pole, along with an outstanding average finish of 3.0 (he’s never finished lower than sixth, which came in last year’s race).

“Phoenix is a race that I’ve done well at so many times,” Kanaan said. “We had a great test in February, so I’m expecting a lot of good things coming out there.”

His record at Long Beach hasn’t been as successful, with just one podium finish (third in 2009). But in nine overall starts on the popular street course, Kanaan – who finished 15th there last year, one lap down – has four top-fives and two other top-10s.

“Long Beach is always a fun place to go, a beautiful place to race, it’s a race that is extremely popular,” Kanaan said. “It’s the beginning of the championship that you want to start off on the right foot, so I’m expecting big things and good results at both races.

“We already had a pretty strong first race weekend, so we’re going to try and keep the momentum going.”

Kanaan is also quick to point out that he’s looking forward to spending several more seasons in IndyCar with Foyt because of the momentum the series has right now.

“You see how many more new teams we have, how many more new sponsors and our new TV package (with NBC from 2019-2021) is great for the future now,” Kanaan said. “We’ve survived and IndyCar is on the upswing, big-time, for sure. That’s what I see.”

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IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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