As second chances go, NTT INDYCAR SERIES veteran Tony Kanaan couldn’t have imagined having a better one than returning to Chip Ganassi Racing for the next two seasons.
Kanaan, who began a four-year stint with Chip Ganassi’s team in 2014, will drive the team’s No. 48 Honda at oval races as seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson pilots the entry on road courses and street circuits.
Kanaan is excited to join six-time and reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, Alex Palou and Johnson in CGR’s 2021 effort.
“I've never closed a door,” Kanaan said of the way he has left teams in his career. “I spent four years (at CGR), and 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.
“To be honest, coming back and having an opportunity like this in the last two years of my career, it's something that I'm not taking for granted. I mean, I talked to Chip last night, and we have one goal: It's to make this team win the (Indianapolis) ‘500.’
“Chip just told me, I added another big chance (for him), and that's my role. That’s what I'm here for.”
Ganassi has won the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on five occasions as a team owner or co-owner and finished second in this year’s race with Dixon.
Dixon and Kanaan won the “500” in 2008 and 2013, respectively. Kanaan won for KV Racing Technology, but he triumphed in a superspeedway race for Ganassi at the end of the 2014 season (at Auto Club Speedway).
Kanaan’s 2021 races will be the two at Texas Motor Speedway (May 1-2), the 105th Indianapolis 500 (May 30) and the short-track race at World Wide Technology Raceway (Aug. 21). Kanaan has excelled at all three tracks recently, finishing second at Texas in 2017, third at Gateway in 2019 and finishing in the top 10 at Indy in three of the past five years (fourth, fifth and ninth). CGR’s history of winning INDYCAR championships – 13 since 1996 – should give Kanaan the opportunity to win any of these races.
It’s worth noting that 15 of Kanaan’s 17 victories in the series and 11 of his 14 poles have been won on oval tracks. (His 15th pole came by way of a draw at Texas.)
“Arguably some people say my best results came on the ovals, so let’s please the people that think that,” 2004 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Kanaan said. “And let’s go win another ‘500.’”
Kanaan has had considerable success at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Of his 19 starts in the “500,” he has led 14 times, an event record, and eight times he has finished in the top five. He has led 346 laps in all, ranking 14th among the nearly 800 who have driven in the race.
Kanaan is one of 11 drivers in Indy car history to have led more than 4,000 laps in his career, and 94 percent of those laps led have been on oval tracks.
“I keep saying it's probably one of the best opportunities of my career,” said Kanaan, who will participate in the series for a 24th year. “It's the best opportunity for me to leave this series -- to leave on a high note, that would be great. I will do everything I can to do it.”
Kanaan competed in just six NTT INDYCAR SERIES races in 2020 – all on ovals for A.J. Foyt Racing – as he executed what he expected to be his final season as a regular on the circuit. But much of Kanaan’s motivation over the years has come from an intensely loyal fan base, and not having many of them at races this season due to the pandemic left him feeling empty. It wouldn’t be right to end his career in that manner, he said.
Yet, there weren’t many jobs available for 2021. Essentially, it came down to returning to A.J. Foyt’s team in a limited role or focusing solely on Indy. While Kanaan’s name had been floated join Ganassi to drive in the non-Johnson races, the Brazilian said the pieces only came together last week. The sponsorship comes largely from NTT DATA and Bryant, with secondary contributions from 7-Eleven and Big Machine Records. All are longtime Kanaan supporters.
Kanaan said familiarity with Ganassi, his Indianapolis-based employees and their success over the years made it an “obvious” decision.
“They have proven they are one of the top teams to beat, and as a race car driver, being selfish, that's where you want to be,” he said. “It doesn't matter who you are; you want to be on a winning team and a big organization that has a lot of resources and so on.
“It (wasn’t) a hard decision; you know what I mean? It's like you're asking a kid if he wants to go for an ice cream. It was obvious.”
The opportunity to partner with NASCAR legend Johnson, a longtime friend, made it a complete package.
“Jimmie just said let's make a dream team and let's make history together,” Kanaan said. “We're two 45-year-old guys that some people believe we can do it but a lot of people believe we can't, so let's prove them wrong.
“He didn't have to say much, man.”