It's dej? vu time for Tony Kanaan, leading the point standings for the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series. Kanaan, the Brazilian who completed his first year of IndyCar Series racing in fourth place in 2003 has a 75-point advantage in this year's title chase over teammate Dan Wheldon (538-463), with just two races remaining in a 16- event campaign.
"I love the superspeedways," declared the driver of Andretti Green Racing's #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda/Firestone entry. "California Speedway was the first superspeedway I ever drove and I won my first American championship there in 1997. Seven years later I'm in almost the same spot as then!"
The title Kanaan refers to, his Dayton Indy Lights championship, came over perennial combatant Helio Castroneves. "I went there with a 12-point advantage; at least I've got 75 points on Dan this time around. The track has a special place in my heart because it is Honda's hometown track. I'd race there anytime."
Texas Motor Speedway, too, has a special spot in this big-hearted man's soul, as he won the night race there this spring after being denied in the 2003 contest by Al Unser Jr. and finishing second. "I'm comfortable with the Texas track," the high banked 1.5-mile oval that seems to bring about the tightest competition as drivers quarrel over spots in the standings in the season finale Chevy 500.
To say that Tony Kanaan has had an awesome 2004 season would be a simplistic statement: Kanaan has 13 consecutive top-five finishes in the 14 races held to date and has three victories to go with his two pole positions. In fact, the Brazilian's lowest starting position thus far has been tenth at Richmond and his lowest finish was eighth in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That the AGR squad chose to bring in engineer Eric Cowdin, who worked with Kanaan in his Indy Lights championship year and, in fact has been with Tony for most of his American racing career keeps a level of continuity and good will going that makes Kanaan sure he's in the best possible place to collect another title.
He could wrap it up on the 2-mile California Speedway oval in Fontana next weekend with a fourth-place or better finish and Kanaan is focused on that achievement above all else. "When I look back to last year, I saw where I could have done more to win races and this year I've done that. I have the confidence to do well at Fontana and Texas. Our team figures if we do our thing and do it best, things will work out our way."
At the beginning of the season, there was a lot of talk in the paddock about the viability of a four-car team like AGR put together. With the return of Franchitti following mid-season back surgery last year, AGR had to make a clear-cut decision: did they keep Bryan Herta and have four cars with Kanaan, Franchitti, Wheldon and Herta or did they make it a three-car entry and cut the Californian loose?
Although Herta is the sole member of the AGR squad who hasn't yet won a race, Kanaan insists Bryan's chassis set-up and development work has been integral to the Brazilian's success.
"We all have such a great relationship it helps us all to have four cars. We work closely to make all four cars better every session and that's the big advantage for us. I was more disappointed that Bryan when he didn't win at Chicagoland (Herta was second to Adrian Fernandez). With two races to go, I know he can do it."
The first driver to beat is always a teammate or, in this case three teammates, but for Tony Kanaan, that's not the case. "That doesn't happen on our team and it's due to the manner in which this team was built. It's going so well and everyone fits in. That's a beautiful thing we've got going and we want to make it last."
Throughout the year Kanaan has stressed that his results are equal to the car he has at each race. "If I have the car to do it, I will win. But I will always try to get the most out of whatever I'm given. If I have a third-place car I will try to bring it home third or better."
While he knows the capability of his Dallara/Honda/Firestone package by the start of each race, "Some people make changes and you have to evaluate that at mid-race. From the last pit stop we all go for it. And that's the moment where you know the reality of what you have to work with."
Following his disappointment last season, Kanaan knew the technical package chosen by AGR was good almost from the start of this year. While he didn't expect Honda to dominate as much as the company has, winning all but one of 14 races held thus far, "I knew pretty early on that we would be competitive. Before Japan, we tested the last 3.5-liter engine at Phoenix [International Raceway] and I knew we had an engine to win Twin Ring Motegi.
"But I was still concerned about the 3-liter program," Kanaan said. "I didn't do the early test before Indianapolis opened in May, but I knew it was good from the beginning. Honda have kept it up and from Indy on I knew the engine was good. I didn't expect this type of domination.
"Honda came so late to the Indy Racing League's competition last year but worked really hard to improve and that was the biggest advantage this year," Kanaan explained. "They got their stuff together and understand the series more. They're such a good group of people and work really hard. Good things happen to people who work hard, you know."
If good things happen to people who put their noses down and focus really hard, then Tony Kanaan could be the Indy Racing League's next champion. If for no other reason, he's certainly got his own big nose focused on the job ahead.