Tony Kanaan finds Pocono’s ‘Fountain of Youth’

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LONG POND, Pennsylvania – In his prime, there were few racers fiercer, determined, tenacious and aggressive than Tony Kanaan. His driving style was once described as watching a “Pit Bull chasing a Pork Chop.”

That, however, was a very long time ago, during his glory days in the old 7-Eleven Honda at what was then called Andretti Green Racing.

Sure, Kanaan would enjoy more moments of glory with other teams, including his lone Indianapolis 500 victory in 2013 for KV Racing.

Over time, however, Kanaan could not find the right combination to return him to the level that made him a fan favorite. He thought he had it at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2017, but instead of contending for championships, it was a challenge to finish the season in the top-10 in the standings.

His last IndyCar Series victory came in the final race of the 2014 season at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

By 2017, Kanaan left Ganassi and joined AJ Foyt Racing, owned by the cantankerous and irascible American racing legend who was the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times in his career. Foyt hired the driver from Brazil, because “he races like I did.”

Instead of returning to a highly competitive level, watching Kanaan try to get up to speed in the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet was like watching Michael Jordan play basketball for the Washington Wizards instead of the Chicago Bulls.

He finished 16thin last year’s standings and enters Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 18thin the NTT IndyCar Series championship.

At 44, Tony Kanaan is the oldest driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. He turned Saturday’s practice session into a “Blast from the Past” as the fastest driver with a speed of 216.354 miles per hour in the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing.

“I was happy with my car in traffic,” Kanaan said. “We can all run close in traffic. We worked hard in traffic because of where I’m going to start. Trying to find the right adjustments to be able to keep up is what we did all afternoon.

“I don’t think you will see anybody dominating this race. It’s a tough track. That’s all we can do. We will try to pull a TK start on it, gain five or six positions, put ourselves in the top 10. It’s a 500-mile race; a lot can happen.

“This has always been a good track for us. We always ran strong on the superspeedways. I’m happy. It’s a good day for us. Bummer for qualifying that we didn’t have a chance to do it. I’ll take it. It’s been a while since we have been that competitive.”

Because the starting lineup is based on points, Kanaan will start way back in 18thplace.

“It’s quite a ways in the back, but we will fix that Sunday,” Kanaan said. “We’re having a very difficult year. Anything we can do to motive ourselves; we are doing right now.

“This will help pump the guys up.”

Team owner AJ Foyt was not at the track Saturday, choosing to stay at his ranch in south Texas.

“He knows already,” Kanaan said. “I have to call him to come up here for the race.”

As former Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson once said, “We’re talking about practice….practice!”

That is true. Who knows where Kanaan would have qualified if the qualifying session had not been cancelled because early-morning rain and the lack of a medical helicopter able to fly through the storm forced INDYCAR to come up with an alternate schedule.

Kanaan’s speed won’t be rewarded in the starting lineup, but it may be significant in the race.

“It’s a shame, but it’s not something we can control,” Kanaan said. “We made the best out of it in this session. I was pretty confident coming to Pocono that we had a very competitive car. We were pretty competitive at the Indianapolis 500 and it’s a similar setup to what we used.

“I’m happy. Starting in the back, at this track, is not easy, but this was a good day for us.”

In the 103rdIndianapolis on May 26, Kanaan’s Chevrolet was competitive, but he ran out of fuel, and went down one lap. He was able to race his way from 23rdand finish ninth on the lead lap.

“We have a pretty good possibility to have our best finish of the year, here,” Kanaan said. “We’ll put ourselves in the top 10 and go from there.”

Despite the disappointing season, Kanaan and his crew have stuck together.

“There is no mystery how much we are struggling,” Kanaan said. “That has taken a toll on the team. It’s not us. It’s really easy to point fingers at each other and we are not doing that.

“I’m not the type of person that gives up very easily. We can’t hide that we are struggling. It’s not the first time I have been in this position and it won’t be the last time. We have a lot to go. I have nothing to prove.

“All I can do is put my head down and work with the team to make them better. That’s all I can do.”

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”