Commentary

Kanaan keeps hopes alive while answering detractors in Detroit

Tony Kanaan took a lot of heat for playing wing man to a teammate last week. He answered -- and called out -- his detractors by winning the Detroit Indy Grand Prix, writes Bruce Martin.

Updated: September 3, 2007, 1:26 AM ET
By Bruce Martin | Special to ESPN.com

DETROIT -- After winning Sunday's Detroit Indy Grand Prix, Tony Kanaan did everything except thumb his nose and stick out his tongue at his detractors and critics who brutalized him for the "team tactics" he used after last Sunday's race at Infineon Raceway.

The loud sound of "raspberries" could have been heard from Victory Lane as Kanaan not only won the race, but thanks to a last-lap crash involving his teammate Dario Franchitti and then-points leader Scott Dixon, is now just 39 points out of the lead heading into next Sunday's final race at Chicagoland Speedway (ABC, 4 p.m. ET).

Because of the unbelievable circumstances that were triggered when the second-place car driven by Buddy Rice ran out of fuel -- right in front of Dixon -- it sent Rice into the tire barrier and Dixon's car sideways before it lazily drifted in front of Franchitti's car blocking the track.

Instead of adding to the four-point lead he had entering the race, Dixon is now three points behind Franchitti. Franchitti finished sixth and Dixon eighth.

"We came here to take the championship lead away from Dixon and that's what we did as a team," Kanaan said of his Andretti Green Racing teammate Franchitti. "Now, let's move on to Chicago."

And the victory allowed Kanaan to single out his detractors.

He took a shot at former four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears, who serves as an Indy Racing League official in the Indy Pro Series and a Team Penske official in IndyCar.

Mears criticized Kanaan last week for the tactics were used when he refused to pass Franchitti's slower car for third place. In the process, he held up Sam Hornish Jr. from being able to improve position and Mears said he believes such tactics strike at the moral integrity of competition.

"I'm back," Kanaan said in Victory Lane. "That's for all the guys who bad-mouthed me last week. I'm going to dedicate this victory to Rick Mears."

Later in the postrace press conference, Kanaan explained why he singled out the IndyCar racing hero with a back-handed verbal jab.

"After all the criticism that I was involved in last weekend, I always say to all the people that criticize me that all you do comes back to you so I guess I didn't do a bad thing," Kanaan said. "I have a lot of respect for Rick Mears. As he said, he lost a lot of respect for me, but I did not lose respect for him. I think he's the greatest of all time. I always look for him and talk to him.

"You know me, I make jokes and I felt funny to dedicate the win for him. If Rick Mears the driver and the IRL official that he is came to talk to me, I might have respect for that. But when he say something and he has a Team Penske shirt, I kind of wonder if he was made because I didn't let Sam Hornish [another Penske driver] by or something like that."

Kanaan has become IndyCar racing's version of Muhammad Ali. He loves to talk but he's so self-confident it borders on cockiness.

The difference between Kanaan and others who love to hear the sound of their own voice is the driver from Brazil, who grew up as Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello's boyhood pal and used to pull pranks on a young Helio Castroneves when they were involved in karting, is his ability to deliver.

Since the beginning of the 2004 season, Kanaan has been the best driver in the IndyCar Series, statistically. He has scored more points than any other driver over the four-season span.

Kanaan has 2,098 points in that span while Dan Wheldon has 2,085. Franchitti has 1,805 points in four years and Sam Hornish Jr. has 1,801, Castroneves 1,773 and Dixon 1,720.

Impressive numbers indeed but what is even more impressive is Kanaan's ability to excel under pressure.

The more people scrutinize and criticize him the more he enjoys rubbing it in their face. He's the type of guy you want on your side.

And to teammates such as Franchitti, he's the type of driver he wants covering his backside on the race course. Take what happened last week at Infineon.

Kanaan decided not to pass Franchitti's wounded car for third place and served as his wing man. He protected Franchitti from drivers that would have dropped him further behind Dixon.

If Kanaan had not done that, his chances for a title would be even closer entering the final race.

Tony Kanaan
I made my decision last weekend at one point in the race. Deep inside of me, that's what I wanted to do. Was I very unselfish? I think so. Five years from now when we all retire, people won't remember anything; but my friendship with my teammate [Franchitti] is one that I will have forever.

Tony Kanaan

"I do not regret what I did last week," Kanaan said. "I made my decision last weekend at one point in the race. Deep inside of me, that's what I wanted to do. Was I very unselfish? I think so. Five years from now when we all retire, people won't remember anything; but my friendship with my teammate [Franchitti] is one that I will have forever.

"The decision I made last weekend was the right one. But now I've told him at Chicago, I'm going for it."

Don't count this little guy out. Even though two drivers in front of him have to have problems at Chicago, it could happen. That's the nature of high-speed IndyCar racing on the high-banked tracks.

But then, who would have thought the usually smooth and consistent Dixon would find his car sideways on the last lap and block Franchitti in the process, leading to charges from AGR that it was intentional?

"I will never be Dixon so I'm not going to answer that, especially after all the heat he gaVe me last weekend, the same way he didn't believe me when I said what I did last weekend," Kanaan said. "I strongly believe he did it on purpose. Now, he can say no. We can't prove it. He can say, 'I was crashing and I couldn't reach the brakes, here we go.

"Do I think it was on purpose? Yes. But you know what, like he always said last weekend, too, what goes around comes around.

"So here we go. He lost the championship lead. He's not sleeping very well this week and I'm coming."

Bruce Martin is a freelance contributor to ESPN.com.