INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tony Kanaan’s resume reads like that of a champion. In three full seasons on the IRL circuit, he has won six races, a series points championship and an Indianapolis 500 pole.

On almost any other team, those accomplishments and Kanaan’s good-natured personality would make him the undisputed marquee driver.

But last year, Kanaan settled for a backup role to teammate Dan Wheldon, who dominated the circuit and claimed the biggest prize by winning the Indianapolis 500.

Now things are back to normal. With Wheldon cashing in on his success by jumping to Target Chip Ganassi this season, Kanaan has reclaimed his role as the face of Andretti Green Racing.

“It’s never really anybody’s team,” Kanaan said in a rare serious moment. “Whoever is doing the best becomes the leader. But we’re not here to be the team leader, we’re here to win championships.”

Kanaan, a prominent prankster, relishes the more serious side of racing — his role on the team and what it takes to win.

When he’s not dreaming up new practical jokes for his teammates, he works relentlessly on his treadmill, mountain bike or other fitness equipment. When he’s not clowning his way through media interviews, he meets with teammates and engineers to fine tune his No. 11 car.

For Kanaan, this is what racing is all about: Enjoying life, teasing teammates — and winning.

“He’s a little bit older, but he’s no more mature,” teammate Dario Franchitti jokes of the 31-year-old Brazilian. “He’s as fun as ever.”

Kanaan entered this season as the most visible and successful driver on a team that has won the last two series points titles.

This month, Kanaan again may find himself in a backseat role. Along with Franchitti, Kanaan is part of a five-car team that includes Bryan Herta and two drivers with the most famed last name in American racing — Michael Andretti and his babyfaced son, Marco.

The questions now focus on the father-son duo trying to overcome the infamous Andretti bad luck at the Indy 500. The older Andretti has returned to Indy after a two-year retirement, still chasing the one major victory that has eluded him as a driver for more than two decades.

But Kanaan may have the best chance to win.

He’s been the team’s most consistent driver this year with two top-five finishes in the first three races and is fifth in the points. Only Roger Penske’s two drivers, two-time Indy champ Helio Castroneves and two-time IRL champ Sam Hornish Jr., and Ganassi’s two drivers, Wheldon and former IRL champ Scott Dixon, have performed better.

And that’s not what Andretti Green is accustomed to after winning the last two points titles. One difference this year is that Honda engines are now available to all teams.

“I think there’s been a little shift,” Herta said. “The last two seasons, they’ve been chasing us. Now that we’ve all got the same engines, I think they’re doing a couple of things better than we are.”

Few IRL drivers have outdone Kanaan in recent years.

After winning the 2004 points title, Kanaan came to Indy in 2005 as one of the favorites. He endured an agonizing six-hour wait to see if his four-lap qualifying speed of 227.566 mph would hold up for the pole and when it did, most expected Kanaan to win.

He nearly delivered on the expectations. With about 25 laps left, Kanaan was still among the leaders — until the team made a setup change that didn’t work. It allowed Wheldon to drive into Victory Lane, overshadowing Kanaan’s brilliant month.

This year could prove tougher. AGR has struggled to keep up during the first week of practice. Franchitti, at 226.960, and Kanaan, at 226.839, have been the fastest in the AGR stable but both have been nearly 2 mph slower than Wheldon’s fast lap of 228.663.

“Last year, everybody was taking punches at me,” Kanaan said. “This year, I feel like we’re in position to throw a few punches.”

Around the track, Kanaan’s brash combination of jokester and competitor have worked well.

“It’s a very fragile thing,” Michael Andretti said of the team’s camaraderie. “When you add someone to it, it’s got to complement it, and I think we’ve done that.”

Even if the boisterous Kanaan would rather not call himself the team’s leader.

“We have an agreement to give the two best drivers their place to win the championship,” he said. “I got my shot in ’04, and Dan got his shot in ’05. We share the leadership, and right now, it’s my go.”

React to this story:


Trending Video

Recommended for you