MOORESVILLE, N.C. – The NTT IndyCar Series doesn’t have a green, white, checkered flag rule, but Tony Kanaan’s career is about to enter overtime.
Kanaan, the 2004 NTT IndyCar Series champion, 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner and a 17-time IndyCar race winner, has added two more seasons to his career that was originally set to conclude in 2020.
He will team up with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Honda at Chip Ganassi Racing. Kanaan will drive in the four oval races on the schedule, with Johnson driving in the road and street course races.
“Let’s just call it I’m sharing the 48 with seven-time,” Kanaan quipped Monday afternoon, referring to Johnson’s nickname.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic limited fan access to the 2020 IndyCar contests, Kanaan, who drove on the oval races for A.J. Foyt Racing, wanted to return to the cockpit so that he could do a proper sendoff with the fans. Meanwhile, Johnson was trying to put an Indy car deal together once he completed his final NASCAR Cup Series season.
Johnson placed a phone call to Kanaan to tell him his ambitious plan and ask if he were interested in being part of it.
Kanaan remembers every detail of that phone call.
“It is one of those things that you remember exactly the day, the clothes you were wearing, where you were and so on,” Kanaan recalled. “I was actually on my bike working out, which is not a surprise, here at home, and the phone rang, and it was Jimmie. I’m like, whoa, I thought he was going to invite me to do a triathlon or something like that, and he popped the question, and I said, ‘Are you joking? I don’t think we can pull this off.’
“Without the sponsors that would have never happened. And obviously Chip Ganassi giving me the opportunity to come back.”
In addition to Carvana sponsoring the No. 48 for Johnson, NTT Data, Bryant’s Heating and Cooling, 7-Eleven and Big Machine are back to support Kanaan’s races in the No. 48 Honda.
“If it wasn’t for them and Chip, obviously this would not have happened,” Kanaan said. “Bryant has been with me since 2003. NTT has been with me since I’ve joined Ganassi, and since I left Ganassi they came with me, as well, and now they’re back.
“If there is somebody to blame, number one, it would be my sponsors that when I came back saying maybe we should come back next year.
“How cool is that; know what I mean? I woke up this morning, I feel extremely lucky, man. I’m going to go back to a team with my best friend Dario Franchitti, my other best friend Scott Dixon, and now Jimmie. How cool is that to write a story afterwards when it’s all over?
“I feel blessed. I can’t thank everybody enough for pulling all this effort together, my family, my wife. She kind of knew that I wasn’t giving up. I guess she’s okay to put up with me for another couple years like that.”
Timing is everything and this is perfect evidence of that. If there had been no pandemic and the season was run as scheduled with full attendance, Kanaan’s career would probably have concluded as planned.
“I would say probably if it wasn’t for the pandemic, I wouldn’t probably have changed my mind,” Kanaan explained. “There were some talks about doing the 500 and on and off and this and that, but I wasn’t clear.
“When I said, this is not the way I want to go, I was fully aware that this was what I wanted, but that didn’t mean that’s what was going to happen.
“But like anything in my life, it never came easy, and I made the decision, and if it didn’t go through, I was going to have to own it. I put my head into it. I said, oh, well, I’m not going to give myself an option, I’m going to make it work, and luckily, like I said before, I have great partners like NTT and Bryant. And as soon as I came back with them, 7-Eleven is back, too, Big Machine is coming back, all of them.”
Kanaan is the final piece to the No. 48 that had to be completed to make it a full-time entry in the 2021 and 2022 NTT IndyCar Series seasons. According to Kanaan, it wasn’t finalized until last week.
“The talks were always there,” Kanaan said. “As long as you’re out of contract, you are talking to everybody. I was in negotiations with Larry Foyt. I was always up front with him. We talked to other teams. Meantime everything else was happening.
“We got it done in amazingly record time, for how complicated the deal was.”
With Johnson’s seven Cup championships in NASCAR and Kanaan’s 2004 IndyCar title, the No. 48 ride could be called eight-time in terms of the combined championships for the two drivers.
“We can call it the eight-time,” Kanaan said. “That’s a good hashtag, #eighttime.”