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Tony Kanaan won his first Indianapolis 500 last year.

Win doesn’t ease pressure

Kanaan back with new ride

– Well, sure, it’s different now.

“Definitely different,” Tony Kanaan said as rain slanted from a battleship-gray sky outside the windows overlooking the front straightaway at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “The questions are different, too.”

They are different because of what happened a year ago, right about 3 p.m., on the last Sunday in May. That’s when the checkered flag dipped over the nose of his race car, and Kanaan left the company of Lloyd Ruby and Scott Goodyear and Michael Andretti – all the jilted names, the luckless brigade of the almost-but-never-were – and joined an entirely new congregation.

The names there are Foyt and Unser and Clark and Fittipaldi, Shaw and Meyer and Ward and Mears. You’ll find them on the Borg-Warner Trophy, which is where Kanaan is now after winning the fastest (187.433 mph), most competitive (68 lead changes) Indianapolis 500 in history. After 12 years of getting slapped around, Indy finally cut him a break.

It sent Dario Franchitti crashing into the SAFER barrier seconds after Kanaan passed Ryan Hunter-Reay for the lead with three laps to run, bringing out a yellow that ensured Kanaan’s victory. And after 12 years in which he always seemed to be the next 500 winner, he was the 500 winner.

After leading at least a lap in his first seven starts, something no other driver in Indy history has done.

Now you turn on the flat screen, and here he is promoting the race on one of the local stations. He’s making all these appearances. And he’s doing it all for a different race team, his luck having come in there, too; after arriving last May unsure whether his sponsorship was going to last beyond Indy. He now finds himself inheriting Dario Franchitti’s seat in one of the iconic rides in IndyCar, the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi car.

A win at Indy will do that for you.

“Helped us big time,” Kanaan said. “There’s no secret how much we struggled with sponsorship last year. (But) because of (Indy), I am where I am right now.”

Which is, oddly enough, in a place he loves like no other, but can’t let on he does.

“I’ve always approached this race as another race,” he says. “Because I couldn’t afford to add pressure to the pressure I already had from not winning. Probably it was just like a mental block on my part – saying, you know, ‘It’s just another race,’ just to pretend. We know it’s not, but I had to take it that way.”

And now?

“The approach has been different,” Kanaan says. “Not in the sense of how am I going to race – you know, ‘Now I’ve really won so it doesn’t matter anymore’ – not that. But it’s been more difficult to walk around, it’s been more busy with interviews and stuff.”

What’s not different is the pressure, and the way Kanaan goes about his business once the questions stop and the fans scatter and he’s strapped into No. 10, and it’s just him and 2 1/2 miles of treacherous asphalt.

“You think about it, the pressure was on me because I hadn’t won in 12 years,” says Kanaan, who struggled with his setup in qualifying and will start from the inside of Row 6 today. “Now that pressure is off, but I have a different pressure because at the Indy 500 you’re with one of the best teams in the series so you want to do it again.”

Not because it’s Indy, necessarily. Just because it is.

“Obviously, this is the Indy 500, but I take every race as a race you have to win,” Kanaan says. “If you’re going to put an extra effort just because it’s the 500, to me you’re not a complete driver. We’re to win every one of them if we can.

“This is not a gentleman’s race. ‘You go ahead, please.’ ”

He’s done enough of that.

bensmith@jg.net

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