Podium like a win for Kanaan

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Indy car racing enjoyed a lot of positive momentum during the 2010-11 offseason.

But try telling that to Tony Kanaan.

The 2004 IZOD IndyCar Series champion lost his ride with Andretti Autosport when primary sponsor 7-Eleven Stores cut its backing, then he never turned a wheel after signing a contract to drive for de Ferran Dragon Racing.

The 36-year-old Brazilian finally landed at KV Racing Technology-Lotus, quite literally at the 11th hour. Kanaan's deal was announced just six days before the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and his chief engineer, Michael Cannon, and several mechanics never set foot in KVRT's Indianapolis race shop prior to departing for Florida as team principals Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser and team manager Mark Johnson scrambled to staff their No. 82 entry.

Kanaan achieved his goal of qualifying in the top 10 by lining up eighth in the GEICO-sponsored car, then took advantage of a first-corner accident to vault up to second place. Pole man Will Power eventually took back that position, but Kanaan withstood tremendous late-race pressure from rising female star Simona De Silvestro to claim third place in his maiden start for KVRT-Lotus.

It was a popular result for one of the INDYCAR's most popular drivers.

"Not bad for an old, used-up guy," ribbed race winner Dario Franchitti, one of Kanaan's best friends.

"What can you say about Tony Kanaan?" added Vasser. "It was clear the car wasn't as good as it could have been and I was really impressed with Simona's drive. She was putting the pressure on. But Tony's a pro; he's a champion. In one week's time, to put a car on the track and then put it on the podium, it's just great.

"I feel lucky, like I found a good driver at the Goodwill store!"

Kanaan had to be the one feeling lucky after the travails of his offseason. It seemed inconceivable that he would part ways with AA and 7-Eleven, his team and sponsor since 2003. But 7-Eleven chose to cut back to an associate sponsorship of Danica Patrick's car, leaving team owner Michael Andretti little choice but to buy out the remainder of Kanaan's contract and take on fully funded driver Mike Conway.

Kanaan and Gil de Ferran were unable to parlay their Brazilian connections into sufficient backing to field a car, so less than a month before the start of the season, TK found himself in the unaccustomed position of being sidelined.

And despite Indy car racing's slow rebound since the open-wheel unification prior to the 2008 season, Kanaan wasn't the only former series champion on the outside looking in. The 2005 IndyCar titlist, Dan Wheldon, has a deal to race for Bryan Herta Autosport at only Indianapolis this year, and Indy is currently the only race on the docket for popular Canadian star (and top active winning driver) Paul Tracy.

So to be in a car -- and to finish on the podium at St. Pete -- was practically a miracle for Kanaan.

"If you think about it, this team was put together last Monday," said Kanaan. "I didn't know anybody's name and I asked a couple of the guys to wear name tags. But as you know, it's a team sport and everybody has to work together. We just want to build something strong.

"Maybe before I wouldn't be celebrating a third place; I'd be greedy for a win. But we need to go back to reality sometimes and I can't thank the KV guys and GEICO enough. I know we have a lot of work to do and I know it's going to be a hard road, but I'm glad it's working out so far. It's my third day on the job and I'm afraid that maybe I raised the bar a little too high. The pressure is on now."

Kanaan clearly survived the hard winter with his trademark sense of humor intact.

"I didn't have any testing and I'm obviously catching up," Kanaan said. "I mean, twice under the yellow I went to talk on the radio and I pressed my overtake button. That tells you how familiar I am with my steering wheel right now. And then I get yelled at: 'TK, why are you using your overtake under yellow?'

"But that's how it's been going for me. Hopefully they can take a picture of my steering wheel to put on my nightstand so I can look at it every day and not make the same mistake."

Kanaan's link-up with KVRT-Lotus should spread the wealth and strengthen the IndyCar Series as a whole. His veteran presence is expected to add a calming effect to a team that suffered the effects of fielding a trio of relatively inexperienced Indy car drivers in 2010, resulting in more than 40 crashes.

On Sunday, second-year driver Takuma Sato drove a mature race to claim fifth place, marking the first time in memory that KVRT-Lotus placed two cars in the top five. Third driver EJ Viso endured a messy weekend, spinning or crashing in all three practice sessions and the race itself.

"I stepped into a team that has been communicating for a while and they welcomed me," Kanaan said. "Viso is a crazy Venezuelan, but he's a funny guy and they made me feel right at home. I think the chemistry tends to click right away or it doesn't.

"I always approve of having a good atmosphere in the team and I think we do. But I haven't had time to do anything this week and we are catching up. We are running behind every time."

Not for long, judging by the way things panned out at St. Petersburg.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.