Robin Miller says…
It’s hard to lead 407 laps in 18 races and only win once, but that was Kanaan’s fate in 2014, a season that staggered in the beginning, righted itself at Pocono and finished in victory lane at Fontana.
Replacing his pal Dario Franchitti at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, the 2013 Indy winner had a bullseye on his back and was expected to be one of the favorites every time the cars rolled off the semi. Well he was but not until some growing pains were worked out and he finally got a little good fortune. One podium (third at Detroit) through the first 11 races had people speculating TK would be out at the end of the season. But nobody was talking like that a couple months later.
Of course it was anything but easy for the 39-year-old veteran. Some fuelish strategy took away a sure win at Pocono, where he led 78 laps, and Iowa should have been two Ws in a row but a late caution and fresh tires for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Newgarden shuffled him back to third place after leading 247 (of 300) laps. Back-to-back podiums at Toronto was followed by a third at Milwaukee and then he closed out his sprint to the finish by leading 64 laps and winning the MAVTV 500 at Fontana.
In the final nine races, he never qualified worse than ninth and showed he could still get the job done on road courses, street circuits or ovals.
The most popular driver on the circuit looked relieved standing in victory lane at Fontana because it had been a long time but it was certainly deserved. If he had any hair left it would have been gray.
Marshall Pruett says…
It was a tale of two seasons for Tony Kanaan in 2014. Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s newest driver looked like he was going to be one-and-done by the time we left the Indy 500 – a race he’d won the previous year at KVSH Racing.
Something was clearly amiss between TK and TCGR, yet it wasn’t clear where the fixing needed to begin. Was it Kanaan? Was he past his prime, unmotivated, or just a bad fit for Chip’s regimented outfit? Or was it the team? Sure, they won the 2013 championship with Scott Dixon, but it took a miracle for Dixie to overcome the team’s poor start to the season.
At the time, I thought it might be a bad fit, but we soon learned the team was struggling mightily for a variety of reasons. And all of those reasons contributed to TK’s limited impact through Indy. The team switched from two seasons of Honda power to Chevy, and the differences in weight, center of gravity, and power delivery required wholesale changes to the team’s setups. Realizing and rectifying the situation took longer than expected, and led to another slow start that hampered TK’s ability to settle in and get down to business.
With a bit of hindsight, it’s clear the expectations for Kanaan at TCGR were too high in the beginning. Once the team started to find its way on setups, TK and his engineer Chris Simmons ramped up their output once the series arrived in Detroit.
After giving away the first five races of the year, TK ended up seventh in the standings with a remarkable rally, including an overdue win at Fontana. My man Antoine was the most consistent driver over the final third of the championship, but the part that impresses me the most is where he ended up in relation to his TCGR teammate.
Dixon put up two wins over the final four races, and claimed third in the standings – 60 points ahead of TK, but I’d argue Tony’s performances – given the context of coming into a new team with a new engineer, and having to help turn the 2013 IndyCar champions around after being adrift – should be rated higher than what Dixie achieved.
To come within 60 points of Dixie, who entered 2014 with everything nearly identical to 2013, is a testament to Kanaan’s speed and professionalism. He’s widely regarded as the best racer in IndyCar, and is known for recovering from poor qualifying performances. It shouldn’t be a surprise he applied the same skills to TCGR where he rocketed through the championship to become, arguably, the team’s top performer by the end of season.
David Malsher says…
In my opinion, the big surprise (a positive one) among the IndyCar drivers in 2014 was Tony Kanaan. If that sounds odd after a season in which he scored just one win and finished seventh in the championship, those stats are more down to the fact that Chip Ganassi Racing was usually mediocre by its high standards. By the end of the season, Tony himself had just about answered all the question marks hanging over him.
Last winter, as we chatted about where he felt he most needed to improve in order to exploit his great new opportunity at Ganassi, Kanaan admitted that qualifying on tracks with right turns was the big one. He was certain, though, that he was better than he’d shown over the previous few seasons.
“Remember,” he said, “at KV Racing over the past three seasons, we knew we couldn’t realistically go for the IndyCar championship, and to be honest, the last couple of seasons at Andretti Autosport, that was true too. So we had to go for specific targets where we could aim our effort, and obviously the big one was the Indy 500 because that was traditionally one of my strongest tracks. So look at our results at Indy with KV – fourth, third and this year, first. So we had less money to spend on engineering great setups for a street course, but you could say the way we planned our efforts paid off, right?!
“So for me, I don’t think it’s my speed on road courses that I need to improve. I need to not make little mistakes on a couple of corners on a flying lap that can cost you two-tenths here, two-tenths there. Because we all know in IndyCar that can be the difference between starting in the first four rows or the last four rows.”
Ah, but was he prepared to improve as he entered the twilight of his career? How long would it take his race engineer Chris Simmons to tailor setups to suit Tony’s aggressive use of steering, throttle and brakes, after five seasons working with the stylish and smooth inputs of Dario Franchitti? And how long before TK was trying to get Simmons replaced? Let’s face it, anyone seeking job security over the past seven years wouldn’t be rushing to sign on as Tony’s race engineer.
No question at all that Franchitti’s presence at most races helped ease the transition for the entire No. 10 crew, and Kanaan himself accepted that here was a team where he needed to fit into the environment and shouldn’t throw his weight around. At Ganassi, changes are instigated by the management, not its employees, and TK accepted that he could just focus on his driving and helping dig the team out of its early-season hole.
If he was mellower outside the cockpit, Kanaan had lost none of his fire or ability once the helmet went on and his controlled aggression – particularly in Toronto and Houston – was a real pleasure to watch. He just has an innate feel for what is and isn’t possible which is why, like Marco Andretti, TK has always been very good at picking his way through from a poor qualifying position.
In truth, Kanaan was rarely notably slower than Dixon and made fewer errors when the car was off-the-pace. On ovals – aside from CGR’s near-invisibility at Indy – he was predictably excellent. At Pocono, he appeared to be the only driver capable of mixing it with the dominant Penske trio; at Iowa he had everyone and everything handled until Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden elected to take new tires for the final restart. And at Fontana, he finally got the victory he deserved.
Although he turns 40 next month, Tony was probably driving as well as ever in 2014. That too, is impressive and answered my last remaining question. I’m happy for him, but also for Ganassi.