Why Even Question Tony Kanaan’s Ability?
With the Verizon IndyCar Series season winding down this weekend, the silly-season is expected to be in full-swing after the championship is decided this Sunday at Sonoma. Most rumors have been focused on Josef Newgarden, the Nashville native that everyone has penciled in somewhere. A month ago, I said that Newgarden will be staying at Ed Carpenter Racing. Now, I’m not so sure. But if he goes anywhere besides ECR, my bet is that it’ll be with Team Penske to drive the No.2 car currently driven by Juan Montoya.
But Newgarden’s ultimate destination for 2017 and beyond is the subject for another post on another day. His day will come. I want to focus my attention for the moment on someone who has won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship and has been the subject of his own 2017 speculation – Tony Kanaan.
Last Friday, David Malsher of Motorsport.com published an article saying that Kanaan was all but confirmed to return for a fourth season in the No.10 car at Chip Ganassi Racing. If it isn’t confirmed, then it is still a rumor. Unfortunately. If Kanaan has the funding that reports indicate, why is there even a question about this?
Kanaan’s detractors will point out that he will turn forty-two well before the season starts next March. They will also tell you that he should give up his prime seat at Chip Ganassi Racing, in favor of a younger driver more deserving. Don’t believe them! Their flawed reasoning will be that he has won only one race, Fontana in 2014, since signing with Chip Ganassi near the end of the 2013 season – to drive the No.8 NTT Data car, while joining his good friend and former Andretti-Green teammate Dario Franchitti.
Unfortunately, fate had other plans. The two never drove together at Ganassi. Franchitti was seriously injured at the double-header at Houston in late 2013 and chose to retire after suffering the lingering effects of a concussion. Kanaan took over Franchitti’s No.10 Target car for 2014, while Ryan Briscoe was signed to drive the No.8 NTT Data car originally intended for Kanaan.
It was not an easy transition. Through the first eleven races of the 2014 season, Kanaan scored only one podium (a third at Belle Isle) and no other Top-Five finishes. His average finishing position through those eleven races was 11.0. After Pocono, he began to hit his stride. For the final seven races of 2014, Kanaan had five podium finishes, which included a second-place finish at Toronto and the win at Fontana to close out the season on a high note. His average finish in those final seven races was 6.57 – skewed mainly due to a twenty-first place finish at Mid-Ohio.
Detractors will also point to an inconsistent 2015 season that saw Kanaan score six Top-Five finishes, but also six finishes of thirteenth or worse, on his way to a lackluster eighth place in the final point standings – while his teammate, Scott Dixon, was winning the championship.
Tony Kanaan’s supporters, which I consider myself one of, will point to not only his long history of winning, but to his stellar 2016 season. Heading into Watkins Glen on Labor Day weekend, Kanaan was sitting third in points and coming off of a third place effort at Texas. He had a very fast car, but a right-rear suspension issue in the race relegated him to a nineteenth place finish and dropped him to sixth in the points.
Kanaan doesn’t drive like someone over-the-hill who is simply taking up a seat and simply turning laps, while trying to desperately hold on to the glory days (Darrell Waltrip comes to mind). It is still thrilling to watch Kanaan start a race at mid-pack and pass multiple cars before the first turn. That’s not the racing demeanor of someone just hanging on to a dwindling career.
Since I’m old myself, I’m always one to value age and experience over youthful exuberance. There is an old saying that there are old drivers and bold drivers, but there are no old, bold drivers. With Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves as examples – I’m not sure that rule applies. Both drivers will be forty-two by the time the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 rolls around next May, yet they have both had excellent seasons this year. Who would’ve thought that the two young kids from Brazil who ended up as the 1997 Indy Lights champion (Kanaan) and runner-up (Castroneves), would still be at the top of their game two decades later? Here, much younger versions of themselves are seen with Firestone’s Joe Barbieri in 1997.
Not only is Tony Kanaan still on top of his game, he is one of the most respected drivers in the paddock and one of the most popular with fans. In all the years I have been to the Indianapolis 500, it’s been a while since I’ve witnessed a win as popular as when Kanaan won in 2013. At the 100th Running last May, Kanaan got one of the loudest, if not the loudest, ovations during driver introductions. He is good with fans, sponsors and equipment. He may not always win, but he is extremely competitive and usually brings a car home in one piece.
Father Time takes its toll on everyone eventually. Most drivers don’t stay in the cockpit until the age of fifty-seven like AJ Foyt did (probably more than ten years too long). Most hang it up before they reach forty. But every now and then, we are treated to the rare drivers who continue to hone their skills well into their forties. We are currently looking at two of them in Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. Helio’s place at Team Penske seems very secure for 2017. Tony Kanaan should be just as secure at Chip Ganassi Racing for next year. Let’s hope the unconfirmed rumors are correct.