INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Kanaan walked into a whole new world when he showed up in town two weeks ago.
As the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, the longtime fan favorite was celebrated all over the city and welcomed everywhere he went.
As the driver of the No. 10 car for Chip Ganassi Racing, however, Kanaan feels some pressure. The fun-loving Brazilian wants to add to the legacy his friends created in the same car.
"My biggest motivation this year is I am driving a car that won this race a few times," he said. "Three of my best friends have driven this car, (Alex) Zanardi, Dan (Wheldon) and Dario (Franchitti), and Chip gave me an opportunity this late in my career that I don't think it comes around that often. I don't think I need more motivation then that."
Kanaan, 39, a 17-year veteran of CART and IndyCar, never dreamed he would be in this position when he left KV Racing Technology to sign with Ganassi's powerhouse team in October.
He expected to be part of a four-car team with 2008 Indy 500 winner and defending IndyCar series champion Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball and his old teammate Franchitti. But two days after Kanaan's deal was announced, Franchitti sustained a severe concussion in a crash at Houston. Doctors advised the three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time series champ to retire.
A month after that, Franchitti asked Kanaan to replace him in the team, for which Franchitti won at Indy in 2010 and '12.
Kanaan certainly has a resume to suggest he can live up to the challenge. He has 16 IndyCar wins and his 2004 series title came with a unique distinction — he's the only driver in a major series to finish every lap of every race.
But living up to the Ganassi legacy is entirely different.
"Those are massive shoes to fill," new teammate Ryan Briscoe said. "I'm sure he wishes he could have jumped into the car and gone out and won the first four races. But there's so much to learn and the team had Scott on board for so long and Dario on board for so many years, I feel like the cars were tailored to them a little differently."
Kanaan is off to a slow start this season, ninth in points with just five laps led, and last Saturday at Indy the four Ganassi cars struggled so badly that none made Sunday's nine-car pole shootout.
But Kanaan, who starts 16th in Sunday' race, topped the charts in Friday's final practice with a lap of 227.838 mph around the 2½-mile oval, followed by Dixon at 227.773.
Last year marked Kanaan's greatest victory after 12 years of vexing near misses in the 500, where he has led 255 total laps, 23rd all-time. He has become a sometimes-regular at Pacers games, has had his image engraved on the Borg-Warner Trophy, has been a prominent fixture in television and radio ads, and is one of the most popular drivers in Gasoline Alley.
"I think I fooled myself the last couple of years saying that I was okay with the fact that I might not win this race in my career, and it changed everything when I crossed that finish line," he said. "It's just a wonderful feeling. It fulfilled my career dream. I landed in a very good job because of it. Trying to take advantage of it again."