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Kanaan fit, focused, still fast going into third Ganassi season

The headline to this piece itself is an indication that Tony Kanaan perhaps wasn’t meant to still be here three years later, in this place, in one of the marquee seats in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

But he is. And he’s not slowing down anytime soon.

“TK,” who turned 41 on New Year’s Eve, prepares to undertake his third full season with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2016 - his second in the now NTT Data-backed No. 10 Dallara-Chevrolet - and remains motivated and primed to prove to any doubters that he’s still got it.

“In 2013, people were saying ‘he might be done’ because we didn’t have the money and sponsorship. And now here we are in 2016 and I’m driving for one of the best teams in the IndyCar paddock,” Kanaan told MotorSportsTalk during this weekend’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 test at Daytona International Speedway.

“It is extremely rewarding, it proves that I can still drive. Some people may say ‘Now you’re 41, you’re getting old.’ I don’t know where they get that from because we’ve still got it. I’m lucky to do what I love and drive for one of the best teams. I think this is every driver’s dream.”

And frankly, the stats back that up. If anything, the stats don’t do it justice simply how good Kanaan has been since taking over the the No. 10 car from Dario Franchitti at the end of 2013, following the Scot’s medically-enforced retirement after his accident in Houston.

In two seasons (2014, 2015), Kanaan has led 620 laps, won once, scored nine podiums, 12 top-fives and 22 top-10 finishes, and finished seventh and eighth in the standings. That’s better than he did after two seasons ending ninth and 11th with KV Racing Technology (now KVSH Racing), even in the year he won the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

And races like Iowa each of the last two years or Pocono in 2014 - events that Kanaan dominated but lost through no fault of his own either on pit road or from mechanical woes - continues to prove he is still one of the best oval drivers out there to this day.

This past year, in 2015, Kanaan assessed his performance as better than in his first season with Ganassi, when he was transitioning over.

“It’s hard to give yourself a grade. I had a better season than the year before, so I would say I would give myself a B,” he said.

“I’d give Scott (Dixon) an A-plus, as a team we won the championship. So obviously, we have to try to do that again this year.”

Given that, he’s bullish on 2016 potential as well.

“My outlook is we’re coming off a season where we won the championship, we have very strong cars, not a lot of changes,” he said. “So I think we’ll be very competitive. And if we do things right, I think we can win the championship.”

Kanaan, like teammate Scott Dixon, has a title to defend first later this month at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Along with Ganassi NASCAR aces Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson, they’ll be in the No. 02 Riley-Ford in the final scheduled outing for the team’s Daytona Prototypes, as the new Ford GT program comes online at Daytona concurrently.

Kanaan heads into Daytona fresh off a winter full of family time with his two sons, Leo and Deco, at least one triathlon, hernia surgery and a new tattoo.

The 2015 Rolex 24 was an important race for Kanaan. His previous starts came in 1998 and in 2013 and in neither car was he able to contend for the overall win. In his first Rolex 24 with Ganassi, he played a key part.

“It was a last minute deal three years ago with Porsche. It was cool because it was with my friend Rubens (Barrichello). But it wasn’t the proper deal,” he admitted.

“Since I came back here, it’s been a deal that you know you can win the race. Like I said, it’s every driver’s dream. It just has changed because you go from something that you’re just participating, now to where you can make a difference.

“Winning last year was just unbelievable. It’s one of those things you never forget. And when you have such a success like that, you want to keep coming back. They give you the opportunity to come back, with the same guys, the same cars. I can keep doing this for years.”

Follow @TonyDiZinno