Tony Kanaan at the finish line of the Indianapolis 500, which had 68 lead changes, a record. “I’m speechless,” he said. “This is it. I made it.”
INDIANAPOLIS — Nine years ago, during a visit to Indianapolis, Tony Kanaan went to see a young girl in a hospital. She was comatose after a stroke and was scheduled to have an operation the next day. Kanaan gave her mother a necklace, a gift from his mother, for good luck.
Under a caution flag, Tony Kanaan edged Carlos Munoz and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Kanaan’s average speed, 187.433 miles per hour, set an Indianapolis 500 record.
The girl lived. By chance, four days ago, she returned the necklace to Kanaan.
“She thought she had enough luck,” he said. “She wanted to give it back to me.”
On Sunday, fortune indeed smiled on Kanaan at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He claimed his first Indianapolis 500 in 12 tries, winning in a wild finish filled with caution flags and a last-gasp pass.
The 97th Indy 500 was up for grabs with three laps to go when Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was leading, went three wide with Kanaan and Carlos Munoz into the first turn off a restart. Kanaan darted to the lead and then cruised to victory under a caution flag after Dario Franchitti crashed.
Munoz was second and Hunter-Reay third.
“You can’t predict yellow, but I said I’m going for the lead,” Kanaan, a 38-year-old from Brazil, said. “I didn’t want to be in the lead, because I knew I would get caught on the restart. I was in the perfect place, exactly where I wanted to be.”
Kanaan made his move on the restart only after another caution that interrupted his duel with Hunter-Reay and Munoz.
On the 194th lap, Graham Rahal brought out the yellow flag when he hit the wall. There was only one partial lap of green-flag racing the rest of the way, but it was enough for Kanaan.
“With three laps, I thought we could have mounted another challenge,” Hunter-Reay said. Of the second late caution, he added, “I didn’t think it would happen that soon, that’s for sure.”
For Kanaan, who celebrated in victory lane chugging and dousing himself with the traditional jug of milk, the victory was an exclamation point on an illustrious career, and a measure of redemption after so many close calls at racing’s most famous track.
Kanaan’s résumé now includes 15 IndyCar victories and a series championship in 2004. But at Indianapolis, he had led in every race the last nine years only to come up short. In 2007, he led for 83 laps before two caution flags and bad weather derailed him.
“I wanted this all my life,” Kanaan said. “But over the years I was kind of O.K. with the fact that I may never have the chance to win it.
“I was looking in the stands, and it was unbelievable. I’m speechless. This is it. I made it.”
The race was a wide-open and spine-tingling affair from the beginning. Sixty-eight lead changes shattered the previous record of 34, set last year. The number of leaders, 14, set another mark, with nearly half of the field leading the race at some point. After Lap 112, no one held the lead for more than six consecutive laps.
At one point, there were 133 consecutive green flag laps, the most since race officials began tracking the statistic in 1976. Kanaan also set an Indy 500 record with an average speed of 187.433 miles per hour.
Story lines abounded before the race. The field, for the first time since 1987, included two three-time winners. Helio Castroneves started eighth and lurked for much of the race in the top 10, but he never challenged for the lead and placed sixth. Franchitti, the defending champion, started from the 17th position but had trouble with his car and was never a threat to win, although he played a major role in the outcome.
“Our car was never really good all day,” Franchitti said. “I went into the first corner on the last restart, and it just didn’t turn and then the hit.”
He added: “When I saw who was leading, it cheered me up a little bit. Great, just phenomenal that Tony won.”
Ed Carpenter of Indianapolis, the hometown favorite, was the pole-sitter. He battled Marco Andretti, who led for 31 laps, early in the race before fading. Carpenter finished 10th despite leading for a race-best 37 laps.
“In this moment, 10th is not what we came here for,” Carpenter said. “But in the big scheme of things, it is something to be happy about. I thought I was going to get it back the whole time, and that is what I am disappointed with.”
In qualifying last weekend, Chevrolet engines claimed the top 10 pole positions. On Sunday, Chevrolet had six of the top seven finishing cars.
It was a cool and sunless afternoon in Indianapolis. With the temperature 62 degrees at the start, it was the third-coldest race in Indy’s history. Rain was in the forecast, but it stayed away, just like the caution flag, long enough for Kanaan to capture the checkered flag.
He took his victory lap in a blue convertible, with his wife, Lauren, at his side. He blew kisses, waved to the crowd and pumped his fist high overhead. He arrived at the finish line and was greeted by a wall of supporters and camera crews. He knelt and gave the famous Brickyard bricks a kiss as the crowd chanted, “T.K., T.K.”
For Kanaan, a well-liked veteran driver, there were kind words from fans and competitors.
“They say nice guys finish last,” Kanaan said. “Maybe this proves them wrong.”
His face will be the 100th chiseled into the side of the Borg-Warner Trophy, the most coveted prize in IndyCar.
“Finally, I’m going to put my ugly face on that trophy,” Kanaan said.