NASCAR

Kanaan settling into new IndyCar ride

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP)

Tony Kanaan spent the offseason pitching himself to prospective sponsors: 15 open-wheel wins, an IndyCar Series championship, a steady eight-year run among the top six drivers in the standings.

All to no avail.

Kanaan didn't officially land a ride until late March, when he signed with KV Racing Technology the week of the season opener at St. Petersburg.

Some of those potential employers who turned him down are probably wishing they hadn't now that the affable Brazilian is third in the IndyCar points.

He finished third at St. Pete, then quickly made up ground from a 24th-place start at the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama before ending up sixth. He's behind only Will Power and Dario Franchitti in the standings.

''I've got to pinch myself sometimes,'' said KV Racing co-owner Jimmy Vasser, a longtime friend of Kanaan's. ''This is the best start our team has ever had.''

Teammate Takuma Sato is eighth.

Kanaan still feels he's ironing out some wrinkles with his new team, but it's a vast improvement from an offseason in which Kanaan found himself in ''the most weird situation I've ever been in.''

''I think I was kind of spoiled in the last 10 years to have a very stable job and go in the offseason and take vacations, spend time with my son and work out, and just really be on vacation,'' he said.

Going into this season, he said, ''I hadn't had a single day of vacation. It's different.''

His offseason included going ''to 89 meetings having to ask for a sponsorship.''

Kanaan, who flashes frequent smiles at the track, was unemployed and uncertain, but not unhappy. He had son Leonardo and girlfriend Lauren Bohlander to help keep his mind off the situation.

''I was just smiling with other things,'' he said. ''With my son, my family, with Lauren. And trying to distract myself as much as I could, apart from when I had to go to work.

''I try not to take it up on being in a bad mood or being negative, because that's not going to help. It was not going to fix my situation. It was not going to find me a sponsor, to wake up mad and not smile. You always have to smile. You have bigger problems in life (than) to just wake up and go, 'Oh my God, I don't have a job.'''

Kanaan spent eight seasons with Andretti Autosport, winning 14 races for the team. He was cut loose when 7-Eleven opted not to renew its sponsorship.

A deal with Gil de Ferran's team fell through. Vasser found out he could be available on Feb. 20, and the rest happened fairly quickly.

''He probably felt like he was in limbo,'' Vasser said. ''But the perception was he wasn't available.''

Kanaan's new deal includes sponsorship from Geico, as well as Brazilian companies.

''When you call a sponsor and say, 'Hey, we've got Tony Kanaan or think we've got Tony Kanaan,' that's a game changer,'' Vasser said. The former open-wheel racer said Kanaan is living up to his reputation as ''one of the best teammates in the business.''

''He's really great with the guys,'' Vasser said. ''Good chemistry is really important to a team like ours, or any team. You're on the road so much, you spend so much time together.

''Just to have Tony Kanaan join your team absolutely fires up everybody on board.''

Kanaan and Vasser both said IndyCar's move to double-file starts and restarts helps him take advantage of his ability to find open spots and move up quickly. It took him only four laps to gain 10 spots in Sunday's race.

Despite the strong start, Kanaan doesn't think his new team is ready to compete for championships.

He struggled in practice sessions and qualifying at Barber Motorsports Park. So if he's not ready to move past Power or Franchitti, he still has perspective born of a tough offseason.

''Six weeks ago, I didn't even imagine myself driving a race car,'' Kanaan said. ''So this weekend what kept me going was I had to remember the winter that I had and just be thankful to be on the racetrack.

''Of course, I'm very competitive. I wasn't happy with what I was going through this weekend. We're doing a great job, but we have a lot of work to do. We're kind of setting the bar too high. And I don't like the pressure right now.''

Even that hasn't wiped off the smile off his face.

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