Kanaan set for more than just Indy 500 success with Ganassi switch in 2014

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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.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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