Tony Kanaan admits he thinks about it. Can’t help it. The thoughts come rushing harder when he considers the task of restoring not only his No. 11 team, specifically, but Andretti Autosport in general, to a position of authority in the Izod IndyCar Series after a mutually horrendous 2009 season.
Kanaan, 35, might have avoided all of this disarray had he just signed the contract he’d agreed upon with team owner Chip Ganassi in 2008. But negotiations suddenly became brisk with long-time boss Michael Andretti once the Ganassi deal was reported, and Kanaan re-signed through 2013. Ganassi replaced Dan Wheldon with Kanaan’s close friend, Dario Franchitti, whose NASCAR junket had imploded. Kanaan sustained his worst season (sixth in points) in four years and Franchitti won his second series title in three years.
Hindsight would seemingly be a hurtful indulgence for Kanaan. He claims otherwise.
“It was my decision anyway,” he said, rubbing his forehead hard as he sat in his hauler during a recent test. “People say, “Oh, you were going to be in the car that won the championship.” But this is the team that gave me my first opportunity, the team that I feel very welcomed at after the year I had. I don’t know. Maybe if I was Chip, and after the year I had (in 2009) I would be fired by now. You know that. To me, I was more loyal to Michael because I was in the shit when he gave me my job. It wasn’t like I was winning races in 2002 (in Champ Car the season before Andretti initially signed him). I was working for small teams and he had the vision, and look what he built.”
Andretti Autosport, which has been surpassed for wins and championship campaigns since claiming three titles in four years from 2004-07 with Kanaan, Wheldon and Franchitti, remains a team in flux in a era dominated by Ganassi and Team Penske. Internally, Kanaan remains the leader of a team groping for balance under a singular leadership structure for the first time and new competition director Tom Anderson. Both he and Marco Andretti disappointed in 2009. Danica Patrick finished fifth in her best points campaign, but is dallying with a possible NASCAR career. Kanaan doesn’t seem daunted by the process even though he admits he’s likely in the final seasons of a 12-year career.
“I think you know the involvement I have with this team,” he said. “This is like my home, so I chose to be home. And to me, yeah, I could be winning a lot more ...maybe. But would it be nice to say, “OK, we won everything together. Now that we’re struggling, I’m going to leave the ship. You guys have fun.” Racing is very selfish and some people wouldn’t care. I’m not like that. I feel like that I owe Michael a lot and it’s a big challenge for me. Because years from now wins are just going to be wins and trophies are going to be on the shelf and what we build here as people, the people I got attached to, to me it’s more important, as long as I’m still having fun and people are still giving me to the tools and that I feel people are pumped to go and still win races even if we’re not. That’s what matters to me.”
Kanaan takes some solace – some – that Franchitti exploited the opportunity he shunned.
“To make it even better, I think, my best friend, is sitting in the car I could be (in) and he won the championship after turning a situation around that they left him out to dry,” Kanaan said. “So to me it’s the best of both. I’d probably be more sad or pissed off if it was somebody else, but I don’t even mind.”