This is as good a time as any to insert a shameless plug. For the past several years, I have done periodic podcasts for CrimsonCast; a website devoted mostly to Indiana Hoosier basketball, but focuses on IndyCar during the spring and summer months. Why they choose me as a guest is beyond me, but I’ve enjoyed doing them nonetheless. They are now branching out with a site called IndyCar Stats. Their focus is breaking down each race and driver and analyzing some of the more obscure stats that many overlook. Other than the fact that I will continue to do podcasts for them on a more regular basis, I have no affiliation with them and my pay grade stays the same – nothing.
In my most recent podcast which was recorded a week ago tonight, I was posed any interesting question regarding Tony Kanaan and if he is already feeling pressure to perform in the No.10 Target car previously driven by Dario Franchitti. It was pointed out to me that Kanaan’s skills may have eroded in recent years, since other than his win at last year’s Indianapolis 500 – you had to go all the way back to 2010 at Iowa to find Kanaan’s last win.
Given the fact that I only had a few seconds to respond, I thought I did a good job in presenting Kanaan’s case. After a solid week to think about it, I’m convinced more than ever that we have no reason to worry about Tony Kanaan and his new team.
It’s not like Kanaan’s two performances with Ganassi have been abysmal. He finished sixth at St. Petersburg and was running near the front at Long Beach when he got caught up in the Ryan Hunter-Reay melee, saddling him with an eighteenth-place finish. Granted, he struggled with his car for most of the weekend – but so did every other Ganassi driver.
Not that he needs one, but if Kanaan ever wanted to use an excuse – it could be that he has been separated from his longtime engineer Eric Cowdin. The relationship between a driver and an engineer is a special one. It’s similar to a quarterback and a star receiver. If they are not on the same page, results can be sporadic at best. If they are in sync with one another, it can be poetry in motion.
I’ve long considered Eric Cowdin to be one of the best and most underrated engineers in the paddock. He and Kanaan have been together since their Indy Lights days in the mid-nineties. From there, they both moved up together from Tasman, Forsythe and Mo Nunn in CART; to Andretti-Green in IndyCar. By the end of the 2008 season, there was turmoil at Andretti-Green. Kanaan came close to bolting for Ganassi and Cowdin left to become Ryan Briscoe’s engineer for three years at Team Penske.
The two reunited at KV Racing Technology in 2012. Back together again, they brought the often disheveled team their only win ever – the 2013 Indianapolis 500. When Kanaan announced he was leaving for Ganassi for this season, he took Cowdin with him. The expectation was that the two would be together on the No.8 NTT Data car. But fate had a different idea. When Franchitti suffered his frightening crash at Houston., his subsequent retirement resulted in Kanaan being moved into the No.10 Target car. The problem was, Eric Cowdin was to stay on the No.8 car – ironically enough, to be driven by Ryan Briscoe. Chris Simmons, who had been Franchitti’s engineer, would stay with the Target car.
I thought this was a bad idea at the time and I still do. When I heard that Kanaan was struggling with the car all weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because he and his engineer were unfamiliar with each other. If you’ll notice, before he had an engine problem – the Cowdin engineered car of Ryan Briscoe was the only Ganassi car that seemed to be dialed in during the race.
But let’s keep a few other things in mind before we start pushing Tony Kanaan out to pasture. He has a history of getting off to somewhat slow starts in a season before putting things together after a few races. Another thing that people fail to realize is that Kanaan is and always will be an oval driver. That’s not to say he does poorly on mon-ovals – he has two IndyCar wins on road & street courses. But the bulk of his success has come on ovals. His lone win in CART came at Michigan, and thirteen of his fifteen IndyCar wins have come on ovals.
The argument can be made that the reason that Tony Kanaan’s results have fallen is because there are fewer and fewer ovals each season. The year of his championship season in 2004, this was still an all-oval series. As the series has added more road & street courses to the schedule, Kanaan’s victory total shrank. If you think Kanaan’s skill have diminished, just look at his results on ovals just last season. Aside from winning at Indianapolis, he had a third at Texas and Iowa, was tenth at Milwaukee; and had a thirteenth at Pocono. He closed out the season with a third-place finish at Fontana. Over the course of six ovals last season, Kanaan’s average finish was 5.5 – not too shabby for someone supposedly over the hill.
I expect Tony Kanaan to do just fine in the seat previously held by his two best friends – Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon. Can he compete with the likes of Will Power and teammate Scott Dixon for the championship? Maybe and maybe not – but he’ll certainly hold his own. This is the best ride Kanaan has had in quite a while. His last few years at Andretti were the worst years across the board in that team’s history. He joined an unstable KV team just a couple of weeks before the 2011 season debuted, after his promised ride at de Ferran-Dragon Racing failed to materialize. Kanaan brought stability and credibility to KV. He also brought them a very popular Indianapolis 500 victory. He is now in a position to win back-to-back “500’s” with two different teams – something that has never been done in the previous ninety-seven races held.
So for all the naysayers out there, your time will be better spent worrying about some other drivers besides Tony Kanaan. Will Charlie Kimball backslide this season? Does Will Power have another choke in his future? Are Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti nothing more than average drivers that bely their namesakes? Go wring your hands over those topics, because I think Tony Kanaan will be just fine this season.