One glorious, vintage Tony Kanaan restart was all it took for the Brazilian to finally check off the one remaining unchecked box on his IndyCar career checklist last year.
After passing Ryan Hunter-Reay on the inside with Carlos Munoz following to “RHR’s” outside, Kanaan had the lead into Turn 1, and a crash by Dario Franchitti moments later left the race under caution.
Kanaan, had, at long last, won the Indianapolis 500 in one of Indy’s most popular triumphs.
He’d reached the summit in his traditional No. 11, on his 12th attempt, in the 2013 edition of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” His self-described “ugly mug and big nose” would be next to his dear friends Franchitti and the late Dan Wheldon on the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy.
In some respects, that was all he needed to consider the season a success. And in some respects, that really was the highlight in a year that had a couple other good moments, but not a consistent enough campaign to challenge for a championship.
Since he transitioned IndyCar in 2003 from the CART ranks, Kanaan had never finished outside the top-10 in points. Yet last year, Kanaan ended 11th, with three other podiums and only two additional top-five finishes.
It was a year where Kanaan and the KV Racing Technology team opted to focus specifically on Indianapolis, and on ovals as a whole. The results there paid dividends.
Although there wasn’t the A.J. Foyt Trophy awarded to the top oval driver, “TK” ended 2013 with the third-most oval points, 202. He trailed only countryman Helio Castroneves (215) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (209) over those six races.
Yet disconcertingly, Kanaan ranked only 18th in points from the 13 remaining road and street course races, with only 195 points scored. Break down your averages and you see how much lower that total was (33.6 points per oval race; 15 points per road and street). Kanaan was ahead of only three other full-season drivers in Tristan Vautier, Sebastian Saavedra and Ed Carpenter.
With Kanaan not ready to hang up his helmet, now age 39 as of December 31, he was seeking one last chance to move back up the IndyCar totem pole.
He got that chance in October, named as fourth driver for Chip Ganassi Racing, as the projected fourth car alongside Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball.
Of course Franchitti needed to retire due to medical advice after his Houston injuries, and thus Kanaan has been entrusted with one of IndyCar’s most successful cars, the No. 10 Target car.
It came a few years late, perhaps, but still something that ticked all the right boxes for “TK.”
“A lot of people know I almost had a history in the 10 car before Dario got there. Dario proved that seat, coming from Dan, Dario and myself,” Kanaan said in December, when the announcement was made at the Performance Racing Industry trade show in Indianapolis.
“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 it,” he added. “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 think it’s going to make it easier on my retirement.’”
And while Kanaan being in the 10 will ease Franchitti’s pain of not being able to race once again, and go for his own shot at a fourth ’500 win, Kanaan has a big responsibility to go with his big opportunity.
His qualifying and Franchitti’s was similar in overall stats in 2013; Kanaan ended the year with an 11.2 average to Franchitti’s 11.3.
But Franchitti had four pole positions, all on road and street courses, while Kanaan did not have the same level of success on those circuits. He made the Firestone Fast Six twice, but had only two other top-10 starts on road and street courses.
Kanaan will work with Chris Simmons as his engineer on the No. 10 Chevrolet, although his longtime engineer Eric Cowdin also comes over from KV and will engineer Ryan Briscoe’s No. 8 entry.
He and Simmons do have a past history at Andretti Green Racing in 2003. Kanaan told MotorSportsTalk in January he’s optimistic they can gel rather quickly.
“That makes it a lot easier,” he admitted. “Eric has worked with Ryan before. It’s all there, the confidence is there, and we know each other. There’s no adapting issues; it’s just more me getting used to the setup.”
Kanaan, like Briscoe, has experience with Chevrolet’s twin-turbo specification and that should be a benefit as the Ganassi team switches from Honda in 2014.
But really for Kanaan, his 2014 is going to be about recapturing the form that saw him in title contention every year for Andretti, and upping his qualifying game a bit on road and street courses.
He remains one of IndyCar’s best on ovals, and best outright racers.