Kanaan aiming to step up in 2009

For most IndyCar Series drivers, winning a race and finishing third in the championship competition would represent a pretty good season.

Tony Kanaan's standards are a bit higher. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion compiled that record in 2008, yet came away disappointed with what he considered a subpar year. Now, Kanaan is champing at the bit for the next chance to put himself and Andretti Green Racing back into title contention.

Last year was rough from start to finish for the 34-year-old Brazilian. TK looked ready to win the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, only to be crashed out by a backmarker.

A second crash, this one at the Indianapolis 500 and triggered by teammate Marco Andretti, sparked a summer of turmoil for AGR and pretty much torpedoed Kanaan's championship hopes with the season barely a third over.

Despite reports of a rift between Kanaan and his teammates, Andretti and Danica Patrick, Kanaan signed a five-year contract extension with AGR that likely will take him to the end of his driving career. Now the hard work begins anew.

"It's just another year with a lot of work to do," Kanaan said. "As you saw, I don't think we performed to the standards of the team last year. So I am working hard with the engineers and my teammates to bring the team back to the level where it was.

"This year, there are no excuses," he added. "We know what we did right, and we know what we did wrong. We are the most winning team in the IndyCar Series and one of the most successful ones. Everybody got what they wanted, so now nobody has any excuses."

Since joining AGR before the 2003 season, Kanaan has won 13 IndyCar Series races -- fourth best among active drivers. But a solitary win at Richmond International Raceway last season has TK hungry for more success.

"With the exception of a couple races during the summer, we were competitive everywhere we went," he said. "We could easily have come away with a couple more victories, but for some reason, being in the lead wasn't good for the 7-Eleven team."

Other than his win at Richmond, 10 other top-5 finishes combined to lift Kanaan to third place in the final standings. In fact, he is the IndyCar Series' all-time leader with 63 top-5 results. But Kanaan, who never has finished lower than sixth in the IndyCar championship, knows top-5s have to be turned into flat-out wins if he wants to add another championship trophy to his collection.

The key to that could be improved relations within the Andretti Green team. At many races in 2008, Kanaan was the team's sole front-runner battling with Team Penske and Ganassi Racing. From 2004 to 2007, Kanaan had plenty of help from teammates Dario Franchitti and/or Dan Wheldon, each of whom won an IndyCar Series championship for AGR in his own right.

But Kanaan's backup group of Andretti, Patrick and rookie Hideki Mutoh was not up to the job in 2008 and, adding insult to injury, Kanaan was not given No. 1 driver status by AGR despite his vastly superior level of performance.

TK knows the camaraderie and chemistry he enjoyed when teamed with Franchitti, Wheldon and Bryan Herta likely cannot be replicated. But improved relations within the AGR team could lead directly to improved results on the track.

"Obviously we use a system where we got ourselves spoiled back in the Dario, Bryan, Dan and TK days," Kanaan said. "Those days are gone. You can never compare. There are different people and different personalities in the team, but as long as we can get along, that's all we care about. I think the chemistry was totally different and it took us a year to adjust."

Indeed, the whole dynamic within AGR changed over the past three years from having three veterans and a rookie into one veteran -- Kanaan -- and three younger drivers.

"People wanted us to have the [atmosphere] that we had back in '04 and '05 with a bunch of young kids and a rookie, and sometimes they don't understand that," Kanaan said. "I think it took time and a couple beats for us to get it right, but everyone is on the same page now.

"Am I going to tell you that we had the same chemistry when I was with Dario and Bryan? No. But that doesn't mean that the team can't be successful like that, because we were the only team that had that at the time.

"Now, I would say we are back to normal and as long as everybody is doing their job, all we care about is making AGR a winning team again. That's all we've got to do."

Kanaan remains high on the state of the IndyCar Series despite the questions about car count and participation brought on by the recession. He is happy that the IndyCar Series looks a lot like the old CART championship, with a nice mix of road racing and ovals. He also is pleased that the Indy Racing League has tweaked the format for road races, adding an alternate tire choice similar to that used by the Champ Car World Series in its last few years of existence.

"I love it," he said. "I just think it's going to make the racing more exciting. Although we already had enough excitement in our races …

"People who are used to watching Indy car races on the ovals don't think the road and street course races are as competitive because it's impossible to race side by side," he added. "I think it's a different kind of competitive. You can't expect a road race to be the same as an oval."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.