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Thursday, October 7, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Tony Kanaan

Somehow, despite all of the difficult moments of his 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, Tony Kanaan still managed to be "best of the rest."

Even an abysmal 13.2 average start, infighting with teammate Danica Patrick, and nearly missing the Indianapolis 500 couldn't hold Kanaan back, as the driver took one win and seven top five finishes on the way to a sixth place finish in points in his eighth season driving for Andretti Autosport.

The season began steadily, with 10th place finishes in Sao Paulo and St. Petersburg, an eighth at Barber, and a fifth at Long Beach, positioning him comfortably in the top 10 in points. At Kansas, Kanaan managed to pass 12 cars to finish third, giving the team some momentum heading into Indianapolis.

Kanaan, like his team owner Michael Andretti, has a history of bad luck in the Indianapolis 500, and this year was no different. But instead of the usual in-race failure - he had crashed in the previous two runnings of the event - his biggest issues came before the race even started.

Crashes on both days of qualifying meant the team barely had enough time to prepare a car to make a run. Eventually, Kanaan put a car on the last row of the grid, starting last after the team went to a different chassis for the race. Despite the team's moribund outlook for the race, Kanaan managed to salvage an 11th-place finish.

After a sixth place run at Texas, the series headed to Iowa Speedway. For the fourth race in a row, Kanaan qualified outside of the top 10, starting the event in 15th. But a strong car allowed him to pass other cars easily, and Kanaan led his first 62 laps of the season on the way to his first victory since Richmond in 2008.

The road courses were less successful for Kanaan than the ovals, and mid-pack finishes at Edmonton and Mid-Ohio (again, attributed to poor qualifying runs) contributed to his falling back in the standings. Kanaan finished a lap off the pace at Edmonton, the only lap he failed to complete all season.

The ovals, once again, were strong for Kanaan, as he took three top five finishes in the final four events of the season, with no runs worse than a seventh at Motegi. These runs allowed him to pass teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay for sixth in points, where he eventually ended the season. His best finish during the stretch came at Homestead, where he lost a heated battle with Patrick for second place.

Kanaan's oval runs were good for fourth in the series' oval championship. He only came six points short of Scott Dixon for third in that competition. But his so-so road course results put him a distant eighth in that subcategory, almost 30 points behind seventh place.

The clear weakness of Kanaan's team during 2010 was qualifying. His only front-row start of the year came at St. Petersburg; in the 11-race stretch from Kansas to Kentucky, Kanaan qualified no better than eighth and was 20th or worse four times. His intra-squad squabbles with Patrick also didn't help his case; the two traded chop blocks on many of the series' ovals, much to the frustration of team management.

To add insult to injury, days after the season finale at Homestead, longtime sponsor 7-Eleven announced that they would be abandoning an eight-year relationship with Kanaan to support Patrick in a reduced role, leaving his plans for the 2011 season uncertain at this point. While both driver and team appear to be interested in maintaining their relationship, the best IndyCar driver not to wear a Penske or Ganassi firesuit in 2010 may have a lot of suitors for next season.

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