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The major drought Kanaan could help Ganassi end

by Matt Beer
8 min read

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You might be forgiven for thinking that Tony Kanaan has been signed as a mentor to Jimmie Johnson as he will share his #48 car for the next two seasons. But for Chip Ganassi Racing, Kanaan’s signing is about so much more. It’s a chance to end a barren IndyCar run.

“I talked to Chip, and we have one goal,” said Kanaan. “It’s to make this team win the 500. Chip just told me, I added another big chance to do so with you, and that’s my role, and that’s what I’m here for.”

Kanaan and Johnson have been friends for a while, and are sponsored by the same bicycle company for their triathlon outings. The pair had discussed teaming up in IndyCar a while ago, even if the 2021-22 deal came together in the last week according to Kanaan.

The Brazilian veteran will take over the oval rounds in the car – something Johnson initially ruled out, then softened his stance on and could well give it a go in the future – while the seven-time NASCAR champion holds the reins for the street and road courses.

It was supposed to be the 2004 IRL IndyCar champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winners last year in 2020, but with fans unable to attend Kanaan’s ‘Last Lap’ tour at most races due to the pandemic, he began looking to extend his stay.

When it became clear Ganassi was an option, Kanaan says it was “like you’re asking a kid if he wants to go for an ice cream”, due to the chance to drive for one of the series’ top teams again.

Kanaan added he remembers the time, place and what clothes he was wearing when Johnson called him to talk about the opportunity, and with the two being friends, it should be a perfect match. But Kanaan isn’t a glorified IndyCar coach for Johnson.


“Jimmie has the best mentor in the house, which is Dario Franchitti. That’s not me. It’s Dario’s role,” said Kanaan, speaking after Monday’s announcement he’d join the team.

“I think I can contribute for sure. I’ll be there if he needs me. Obviously, with me he’s more like ‘hey, how do I need to make my neck stronger, how do I make my shoulders stronger’ and this and that.

“I think the driving side, we have the best driver’s coach in the business to do that, and that’s not my intention to do so. But if he needs help, I’ll definitely be around.

“But yeah, we’ve been talking a lot. Jimmie is an extremely committed guy, and he’s been concentrating a lot on the task. That’s what the guy does. We talk pretty much every day.”

Franchitti is one of Ganassi’s keys to success. The four-time champion has worked with the team for a long time now and he’s been part of the reason its rookies have got up to speed as its driver coach. It’s unusual for a team to be able to have someone as good as Dario around on a permanent basis like that.

Kanaan doesn’t know how to do something half-hearted. Even if this is a farewell parade, it’ll be the most motivated farewell parade you’ve ever seen

There’s also another interesting thing about Dario – he took the team’s last Indy 500 win in 2012. The team has had so much success in the IndyCar championship but Chip’s favourite event has gone unclaimed by the team since then.

The 500 really appears to be where the team has made moves this off season. Kanaan is the icing on the cake.

Felix Rosenqvist has moved on from the team to Arrow McLaren SP, and while his adaptation to IndyCar was rapid and excellent, the 500 is something he has struggled to get on top of.

His replacement, Alex Palou, had never been to an oval before 2020, but set the fastest lap of the Indy 500 fortnight driving for Dale Coyne Racing. He did crash in the race, but to have delivered such a brilliant qualifying and practice performance impressed a lot of teams. Ganassi knows there’s a lot of upsides to bring out there and Palou knows his pace was what put him on the minds of some bigger teams heading towards the off-season.

Marcus Ericsson sticks with the team and is another who’s shown flashes of pace at the 500. Top 10 finishes and perhaps better were on in 2019 and 2020, the first year ending in a crash entering the pits after locking up and this year an on-track crash into the wall when he believed he could be in contention for victory.

The thing is though, there’s youthful upside there. Marry that with the rest of Ganassi’s assets and you have a strong package. Dixon may have won this year had he not been blindsided by Takuma Sato’s pace and not expecting him to reach the end on fuel. Franchitti has three wins at the event, and that’s before you start digging into the behind-the-scenes personnel.

Tony Kanaan IndyCar 2020

Kanaan only adds to that. Last year he showed exactly what he can bring to Ganassi. In practice for the 500, he made the once common move (it happens a lot less now) of taking his rookie team-mate Dalton Kellett’s car out to give him some pointers and suggest changes. Like a proud father, he put an arm around Kellett and helped him to understand where he could find pace, where to push and where to back off – and how his set-up could impact that.

Kanaan struggled along with other Chevrolet runners in the 2020 Indy 500 (he still beat the previous winner, Simon Pagenaud, among others) but took ninth the year before equaling the Foyt team’s best result at the event since 2008 with Darren Manning.

The two years before that, in 2016 and 2017, Kanaan was fourth and fifth respectively. That was with Ganassi, in a spell with the team that didn’t live up to expectations – “I told Chip at the time I didn’t think I delivered as much as I should have and I needed to go, and we went away,” said Kanaan.

Kanaan’s often up in the morning nailing a casual 60-mile ride on his bike. Since the pandemic hit, he’s got a simulator and while he knows he’s trailing those with more experience, he still spends hours perfecting the craft, racing in top series. I guess the point is, TK doesn’t know how to do something half-hearted. Even if this is a farewell parade, it’ll be the most motivated, competitive and amenable farewell parade you’ve likely ever seen.

He finished seventh, eighth, seventh and 10th in the championship during his four-year stint at Ganassi as Dixon claimed a title and didn’t finish outside of the top six in the same period.

It’s undoubted that Kanaan feels there is unfinished business and that – despite the upgrade to race-winning machinery for his ‘goodbye, fans’ tour, he’s still intent on success and giving something back for the opportunity he’d been awarded.

Tony Kanaan IndyCar 2020

“I got a second chance to redeem myself and give Chip another 500 win, and hopefully I will do that, work with my team-mates to make the team stronger, as well, and if I can win – try to help them to do so,” he adds.

“I keep saying, it’s probably one of the best opportunities of my career. It’s the best opportunity for me to leave this series, because I am telling you this time for sure in two years I will not be racing when I’m 50, but I said that two years ago.

“To leave on a high note, that would be great. I will do everything I can to do it.

“I mean, Chip is in the business to win races. That’s all he cares about. He won’t save you if he has something to tell you.

The only thing Ganassi has to worry about is building too much, too quickly

“To me, it’s a great problem to have that butterfly in your stomach from now on. It’s like, wow, now I have to do it. I have some tough team-mates there that I’m going to have to be on top of my game because the team is going to give me everything I need – with no excuses – to win races.

“Been there before a few times, and I think it’s totally manageable.”

Even if Kanaan doesn’t come in as an Indy 500 favourite or someone who is believed to be a driver capable of winning at this stage of his career, he still brings a level of experience only Dixon has in recent years – which will be invaluable to his younger team-mates.

It will also be key to Ganassi’s long-term future. It has been used to running two cars and expanded to three with Dixon, Ericsson and Rosenqvist for 2020. The drivers hailed the extra data point the Ericsson car added, but now the team has to build the #48 team from scratch.

Tony Kanaan IndyCar 2020

Kanaan’s experience at the 500 will be key for adapting some of those staff who will be inexperienced in IndyCar racing and help them learn quickly, avoiding the pitfalls. That’s a brilliant shortcut for the team to be ready for 2023 when Kanaan has left and the new engine rules come into play in the series.

The only thing Ganassi has to worry about is building too much, too quickly. Dixon himself pointed to the importance of the addition of personnel in the 2019 offseason from the mothballed Ford GT project. That allowed more people at Ganassi to help lighten the load of those who were stretched. Now there’s another team in the organisation with the #48 – plus it is expanding into the top-class of the IMSA championship in 2021, too (something Kanaan said he was “available” for if Chip wanted him in the car).

But the team is huge and has taken on big challenges before. More importantly, it learns from its mistakes and that should help with the stretching of personnel and how to avoid the affects of that. Signing Kanaan also shows it is learning from its mistakes in adding another safe, experienced pair of hands at the 500, someone who will be in contention if the car is right.

It’s been an amazing year for Kanaan. He’s gone from ending his career with a below-par team fighting to break into the top 10 sporadically, to joining a group of his old friends in a team synonymous with winning.

The experience he brings is another feather in the cap for this team and its future chances.

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