Kanaan not giving up on 2016 title drive just yet

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Tony Kanaan sounds like an optimist. Or maybe the Chip Ganassi Racing Teams driver just knows what mathematically eliminated means.

And he’s not there — yet.

That the Brazilian is 127 points behind Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske with four races remaining suggests Kanaan needs some major help to be a contender.

Kanaan summed up his situation succinctly during a lunch break from the Aug. 8 Firestone tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We’re sitting fifth in the championship right now and, I think, in the next two races, if we don’t pull a win, we can forget about this championship,” said the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner. “It’s win or nothing.”

Win or nothing?

“Bottom line,” he said with a grin. “That’s why we’re racing.”

Although Kanaan hasn’t won a race since the 2014 finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., he’s finished ninth or better in 10 of 12 starts this season. He’s been worse than 12th only once, but a final stretch of strong results won’t matter if he doesn’t win.

The winner in each of the next three races earns 50 points plus would automatically get one point for leading a lap. Two more bonus points are available for leading the most laps and one for winning the Verizon P1 Award for pole position.

So let’s play the game of “what if” for Kanaan’s sake. If, for example, at the next race, the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway on Aug. 21, Kanaan wins the pole and race and leads the most laps while Pagenaud finishes 22nd, that’s a 46-point gain.

Kanaan would still be 81 points behind, but if he makes up more points in the next two races – the completion of the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway (Aug. 27) and the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen at Watkins Glen International (Sept. 4) – he gives himself a shot in the season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, where the race points are double. That last race would be the key, considering the race winner could conceivably earn 104 points while the 22nd-place finisher would get just 16 if he leads no laps.

Granted, that’s the best-case scenario for Kanaan, however unrealistic it appears. The problem with that scenario is Pagenaud has won four races, six poles and finished worse than 13th only once this season.

“He’s been pretty strong, but we saw last year what happened to (Juan Pablo) Montoya, so anything is possible,” Kanaan said.

The ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway airs live at 3 p.m. Aug. 21 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Montoya led the points all season in 2015, including his second Indy 500 victory, until the final stop at Sonoma Raceway, when Kanaan’s teammate Scott Dixon won and overcame a 47-point deficit to tie the Colombian, who drives for Team Penske. Dixon claimed his fourth career series title by virtue of a tiebreaker with three season wins to Montoya’s two. 

Dixon and Kanaan are currently tied with 357 points. Josef Newgarden of Ed Carpenter Racing has 364, Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves has 373 and Team Penske’s Will Power is at 426, or 58 points behind Pagenaud.

It’s fair to say Kanaan probably needs more than a win or two and strong finishes in the other races, as well as a Pagenaud collapse to have a chance. He needs the other drivers ahead of him to have some setbacks, too.

“As long as they keep saying mathematically I have a shot, I have a shot,” Kanaan said with a smile.

His lone Verizon IndyCar Series title came way back in 2004. He finished second the next year and has been third two other years. Kanaan’s best points finish since 2009 was fifth in 2011.

Perhaps his upbeat demeanor — and what some might say is an overly optimistic outlook — could be attributed to how much he enjoys driving at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even during a test on a hot day, Kanaan sounded like a kid in a candy store.

“Any day at the speedway is a good day,” he said. “I love it. I love this place. I think the beauty is we don’t get enough of this place during the year, so every time we’re back here, I love it.”

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