Monday, April 21, 2008


Tony Kanaan is becoming familiar with fatherhood -- and not only because his wife, Dani, gave birth to their first child, Leonardo, in September.

After the departure of longtime teammate and close friend Dario Franchitti, Kanaan enters his sixth IRL IndyCar Series season feeling like a single parent at Andretti Green Racing.

"I have four kids, three on the team and one at home," the 2004 IRL champion said, laughing.

The IRL family also is burgeoning as the curtain rises on 2008 with Saturday's Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the first Indy-car race contested under a unified banner since 1995.

The absorption of the Champ Car World Series will match new drivers such as Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson and Bruno Junqueira against IRL veterans such as Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves. The latter four enter the season as title favorites, particularly with the NASCAR defections of defending series and Indianapolis 500 champion Franchitti and three-time IndyCar champ Sam Hornish Jr.

But battling a trio of title rivals might be just as challenging as mentoring three teammates for Kanaan, whose 81 IRL starts (plus five seasons in Champ Car) are two more than the career total of AGR drivers Marco Andretti, Hideki Mutoh and Danica Patrick.

Kanaan has compiled 12 victories and 55 top-five finishes while scoring more points (2,126,24more than Wheldon) than anyone else since 2004, and he attributed much of the success to setups he developed in lockstep with Franchitti, who had a year more of experience in Indy cars.

"It's a big challenge and a big loss for me," the 34-year-old said. "Marco and Danica will have to move into Dario's position, because that's how a company works. The CEO retires, and they bring the next guy in. So I guess I'm going to have to be Dario, and I need Marco to be me and Danica to be Marco."

The best example of the Kanaan-Franchitti partnership came last year in the Indy 500 when the pair cooked up a setup that dominated the race (Kanaan led 83 of the 166 laps, and Franchitti won). During an early practice, Kanaan drove the Dallara-Hondas of Andretti and Patrick in addition to his own while divvying up a list of mechanical tricks to tackle with Franchitti.

"We used to say, 'I'll do this, you do that,'" Kanaan said. "Now I have to think about talking to Marco and Danica that way. It takes time to adjust."

Patrick plans on playing a larger role in contributing setup data, particularly on short ovals and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "It's an honor when people decide to just bolt on your whole setup and use it for qualifying or the race," she said. "We all contribute, and it's not like Tony's only role is to produce a setup. We all help.

"There are definitely more times that the guys with experience can prevail and produce a good solid setup. Sometimes more often than not it's about trusting that person because they've been around so long. But it's not like Tony's the only one on the team; I'd be surprised if he didn't feel like he could rely on us."

Mutoh probably won't be contributing quite as much. The Japanese graduate of the Indy Pro Series (second in 2007 points) has one IRL start and made his debut Monday on a high-banked superspeedway by testing at Texas Motor Speedway -- under the watchful eye of Kanaan. "Tony is always a good teacher," he said.

It helps that the Brazilian had a six-month offseason to adapt to a newborn at home. Leonardo recently began sleeping through the night, pleasing his father.

"He was very kind to time himself so I had a break to catch up on all the sleep I didn't get," Kanaan said, laughing. "I'll be going into the season rested for my other kids."


IRL IndyCar Series opener

*What: Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300, first of

19 IRL IndyCar Series events

*When: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2

*Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway,

a 1.5-mile oval with 18- to 20-degree variable

banking in turns; 200 laps/300 miles

*2007 winner: Dan Wheldon

*Quick hit: Wheldon becomes the first driver

to win four consecutive races at one track if

he wins at Homestead on Saturday.

(c) USA TODAY, 2008