INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tony Kanaan had the car. He had the nerves. And he finally had the luck.
Now he has the trophy, too.
Kanaan won his first Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, ending 12 years of frustration with a crowd-pleasing victory for the popular Brazilian driver.
After coming so close so many times, he couldn’t help but feel nervous on that long, anticlimactic final lap under the yellow caution flag.
“I started to check everything in my car,” he said. “Do we have enough fuel? Four wheels? You kind of go crazy. The pace car guy, whoever it was, this guy is actually celebrating. I’m like, ‘Go! Can you go quicker? It’s going to be a long lap if keep doing that.’”
Kanaan is Indy’s hard-luck loser no more. He is its champion at last, with a dose of good luck for a change.
“I have to say, the last lap was the longest lap of my life,” Kanaan said.
It was one of Indy’s most popular victories. As the crowd roared its approval, Kanaan flipped up his visor to wipe away tears. Then in Victory Lane he gave his bride of two months a long kiss and poured the celebratory winner’s bottle of milk over his head.
The losers were pleased with the outcome, evidenced by a scene similar to rivals lining up to congratulate Dale Earnhardt when he finally won the Daytona 500 on his 20th try. Dario Franchitti, whose crash brought out the race-ending caution, stood grinning by his crumpled car, two thumbs up as Kanaan passed under yellow.
“When I saw who was leading, it cheered me up a little bit,” said Franchitti, last year’s winner. “He’s a very, very deserving winner.”
The fans thought so, too, standing on their feet, screaming, “TK! TK! TK!” as he and team owner Jimmy Vasser went by during the traditional victory lap. It felt magical to Kanaan, as if he’d given the crowd at Indianapolis Motor Speedway a gift.
“It means a lot to me because so many people, I could feel that they wanted me to win, and it’s such a selfish thing to do because what are they getting from it?” Kanaan said. “I’m the one who gets the trophy. I believed that this win was more for people out there than for me.
“I wanted it all my life, but over the years I was kind of OK with the fact that I may never have the chance to win.”
His chance came at the end of a history-making race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Kanaan knew he had to pounce at the green flag for the final restart with three laps to go. He did, zipping inside leader Ryan Hunter-Reay to roar into the lead — where he wanted to be in case another caution came out.
“I knew I had to get the lead on the restart because it could be a yellow, which happened to me plenty of times here, and it did,” Kanaan said. “How funny is life? The yellow was my best friend.”
Kanaan had his fair share of chances to win at Indy, but came up short time and time again. He was leading when the rain came in 2007, only to lose to Franchitti when the race resumed.
In all, Kanaan went into Sunday’s race with 221 laps led at Indy — more than any non-winner except Michael Andretti and Rex Mays — but his second-place finish to Buddy Rice in 2004 was the closest he had come to victory. He had a pair of third-place finishes, including last year — again to Franchitti.
“It’s wonderful for him,” said Mario Andretti, himself a victim of bad luck at Indy. “He’s raced here long enough that he deserves it, no question.”
The win for Kanaan and car owner Vasser was celebrated throughout the paddock. Alex Zanardi, who came from Italy to watch the race and gave Kanaan one of his 2012 London Paralympics medals as good luck, wept behind the pit wall as Kanaan took the checkered flag.
“I tell you I’m starting to think (the medal) really works,” said Zanardi, who lost his legs in a 2001 crash in Germany. “It’s a dream come true to see Tony win, to see Jimmy Vasser win, my dear friend. I’m so happy, I’m so happy.”
It was Vasser who brought Zanardi’s medal to Kanaan before the race, telling his driver that Zanardi wanted him to rub it for good luck.
“I actually cuddled with the thing,” Kanaan admitted.
Vasser, caught in the middle as a driver during the political fighting in open-wheel racing, only got the chance to run at Indy eight times in his career — but not during his prime. He had goose-bumps on the celebratory lap with Kanaan as the crowd chanted the driver’s name.
“I never won it as a driver. In fact, I couldn’t win it as a driver,” Vasser said, “so I had to hire the right guy to do it, get a baby Borg on my shelf,” referring to the winner’s Borg-Warner trophy.
It will be one adorned with Kanaan’s likeness, and the driver joked he could finally “put my big nose on that trophy.”
Fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves, like Franchitti shooting for a record-tying fourth Indy win, was happy for his long-time friend.
“Finally he’s able to win this race. He’s so close so many times, but the good news is the good old boys are still able to run fast,” Castroneves said.
Carlos Munoz, a 21-year-old rookie making his first IndyCar start, finished second and Hunter-Reay was third.
“T.K. is such a fan favorite, absolutely, it’s great to see him win it. If anybody is going to win it in the field, he’s one of the few I’d like to see other than myself,” Hunter-Reay said. “We were leading on that last restart, I knew I was a sitting duck, and I wasn’t too bummed about it because I knew we had enough laps to get it going again and have a pass back. Maybe I would be third on the last lap, which is where I wanted to be.”
Only there was no racing on the last lap. Franchitti brought out the caution seconds after Kanaan passed Hunter-Reay for the last of 68 lead changes — exactly double last year’s record.
On the final lap, the leaders came to the finish line all bunched up around Kanaan, saluting the IndyCar stalwart who had longed to add the final missing piece to his resume. That was about as slow as anyone had driven all day. The average speed was 187.433 mph, another Indy record.
Marco Andretti finished fourth, failing to win for the eighth time but taking over the IndyCar points lead. Justin Wilson was fifth in the highest-finishing Honda on a day that was dominated by Chevrolet. Castroneves was sixth. Pole-sitter Ed Carpenter led a race-high 37 laps and finished 10th.
For a time, it appeared the win would go to AJ Allmendinger, who led 23 laps in his Indy debut for Roger Penske.
Fired by Penske from his NASCAR ride last year after failing a NASCAR drug test, Penske gave him a second chance with this IndyCar opportunity. Seven years after leaving open-wheel racing, Allmendinger finally ran “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and was leading when his seat belt came undone, forcing him to pit.
It put Allmendinger off the pit cycle, and he was forced to stop for gas twice far in advance of the rest of the field. It meant Allmendinger had to drive his way back to the front each time, and he finally sputtered out at seventh.
“I’ll be honest, pretty special moment to be leading at Indy,” he said. “My body kind of went numb, my mind was racing and I could feel my heart beating really fast, and that’s a special moment I’ll never forget.”
A year after 34 lead changes and a frantic finish created what many considered the best 500 ever, IndyCar had its hands full trying to top itself.
This one might have done it, with the slicing and dicing at the front, over and over and over again. The 68 lead changes involved 14 drivers, and 28 of the 33 cars were running at the end. With 100 miles to go, 25 drivers were on the lead lap.
“It was a hell of a race. That’s all I can say,” said Mario Andretti. “This is riveting competition, that’s all I can tell you. It’s just amazing. The reliability of the cars is there. The product is there. It’s unbelievable racing, the best I’ve seen in years.”