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IndyCar 2016 driver review: Tony Kanaan

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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver lineup in the Verizon IndyCar Series, after the 2016 season, with seventh-placed Tony Kanaan.

Tony Kanaan, No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2015: 8th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 213 Laps Led, 7.6 Avg Start, 9.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2016: 7th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 2 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 37 Laps Led, 8.8 Avg. Start, 8.8 Avg. Finish

For the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series, Tony Kanaan was back in a big way. Yes, he didn’t win a race and only scored a couple podiums, but this was easily his best season yet at Chip Ganassi Racing Teams as well as his best overall in perhaps five or six years – maybe longer.

Until the final two races, which ended with a bit of a thud – 19th and 13th place results were two of his three worst finishes all season – Kanaan was between second and 12th in all but one of the first 14 races. He arguably could have won Road America with another lap, he had one of his favorite all-time drives at Indianapolis en route to fourth there, and he was typically tenacious at Phoenix, Toronto and Texas.

His qualifying remained a strong point as well. Only just two spots on average behind Scott Dixon, 8.8 to 6.2, Kanaan was always starting high enough up in the field to where his team’s pit crew work and Kanaan’s usual performance on race days could make the difference.

He never seemed out of contention. Far more often than normal Kanaan’s blue-and-white No. 10 car was firmly in the mix and there were no races where it felt as though Kanaan was anonymous. Mid-Ohio – maybe – with a 14th place start and 12th place finish was the only track where it didn’t seem Kanaan was in the frame.

Firmly focused, fit as ever and determined not to let the doubters get him down, Kanaan proved throughout the year that he still has more than enough of what it takes at this level to succeed – and will be keen to rock it once more in 2017, as he’s back once again with Ganassi.

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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