Tony Kanaan feels like a little kid again.
That’s how pumped 2004 INDYCAR SERIES champion Kanaan is for this weekend’s doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway. Kanaan will drive the No. 48 Bryant Chip Ganassi Racing Honda in the Genesys 300 at 7 p.m. (ET) Saturday, and he will drive the No. 48 American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda in the XPEL 375 at 5 p.m. (ET) Saturday. Both races will be broadcast live on NBCSN and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for 2004 Texas winner Kanaan, who returns to Chip Ganassi Racing to split driving duties with rookie Jimmie Johnson. Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson is driving the car on all road and street circuits this season, while Kanaan will race in all the oval events. Kanaan competed for Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-17.
“I’m really excited,” Kanaan said. “I think the challenge this year with Chip Ganassi Racing (is fun). The responsibility of the No. 48, having Jimmie texting me to take care of his car the entire weekend, which I keep reminding him: It’s Chip’s car, but it’s his number.”
In Kanaan’s four-year run at Ganassi, he finished sixth, second, third and second while also leading 59 laps at the 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth. That, and Kanaan’s average start of 8.4, average finish of 6.7 and 95 percent lap completion rate in 21 starts back up Kanaan’s belief that Texas is one of his best tracks on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule.
“I’m confident, and I’m pretty comfortable in Texas,” Kanaan said. “It’s a track that has been pretty good to me. I’m 100 percent confident that I can actually be fighting for a win this weekend.”
Additionally, this truly feels like a homecoming for Kanaan because most of his team is still intact from when he competed with Ganassi before racing for A.J. Foyt Enterprises from 2018-20. In addition to still having six-time and defending series champion Scott Dixon as a teammate, Kanaan has the same engineer and many of the same mechanics working on his car. He also has the same locker at the team’s race shop from when he was last on the Ganassi payroll.
It’s that confidence in his potential performance and the familiarity of it all that feed into Kanaan feeling like a little kid again.
Plus Kanaan gets a second, extended chance at his “TK Last Lap,” which has him feeling on top of the world. Kanaan admitted he struggled to accept last year he was no longer a full-time driver. He said attending the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last October as a fan was “tough.”
But this two-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing has breathed new life into Kanaan, 46.
“If you think about when this opportunity came about, I mean, I'm with one of the best teams in the series, and I'm racing in a few of my strongest racetracks that I had on my record, including the ‘500,’ Kanaan said. “That alone is just -- like you're telling a race car driver he's getting into a team that is a winning team or back to a winning team that has a lot of potential, you lose sleep over that. You daydream a lot.”
Kanaan figures he’ll be at the front this year, comparing himself to oval ace Ed Carpenter, who also competes only in the series’ oval races and will drive the No. 20 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet this weekend.
Kanaan vividly remembers battling with part-time Carpenter in 2014 at Texas while he was a full-time driver. Carpenter won that race, and Kanaan finished sixth.
At the time, it was frustrating for Kanaan to lose to someone who wasn’t battling to win the Astor Challenge Cup. But now that Kanaan is in that part-time role, he’s savoring the moment to mimic Carpenter’s success in that race at Texas.
The Brazilian must battle with a crop of talented young drivers in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Pato O’Ward (21), Colton Herta (21), Rinus VeeKay (20), and Kanaan’s teammate Alex Palou (24) are sure to be a burr in his saddle this weekend in the Lone Star State.
When Kanaan finished second in his Texas Motor Speedway debut in June 2003, O’Ward was 4, Herta 3, VeeKay 2 and Palou 6. Kanaan was 28.
He vividly remembers the position today’s young stars are in from when he was a series rookie back in the early 2000s. Specifically, he remembers battling with Al Unser Jr. at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Kanaan thought he had the upper hand on Unser, but he lost the duel for ninth position when Unser went low and Kanaan hit the wall.
After the race, he told Unser his pass was a good move. Unser replied: ‘Oh, well. You will learn, kid.”
“It’s funny how that goes,” Kanaan said. “I got to experience both sides, being that kid (once). That’s pretty much how I feel (now.) I mean, I think if we get down to a fight in Texas with the young kids, I think they will learn a couple more things (from me) about oval racing.”
If Kanaan has his way about it, either race at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend could be a battle between kids. Just don’t be surprised if one of those kids is Kanaan.