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COLUMN

Good guy Kanaan gets first Indy 500 win

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Follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio.

Records fall in fastest 500 ever

Monday, May 27, 2013 - 8:46 am

INDIANAPOLIS -- This was for the good guy. It was for perseverance and faith.

“TK! TK! TK!” fans shouted at the man who had shattered the myth that nice guys finished last.

Eleven years of Indy 500 near-misses and heartbreak were over, and Sunday's celebration left Tony Kanaan dripping milk and emotion.

Indy 500 champ -- at last. Can you believe it?

“Finally, they're going to put my ugly face on this (Borg-Warner) trophy,” he said.

Of course there were tears and hugs and kisses and cheers.

How could there not be?

“TK! TK! TK!” fans shouted some more.

There was a promise to see his son, Leo, who lives in his native Brazil, if he won the race, and if reality might mean a delay in the plans (“You have a very busy week, buddy,” fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves said about the winner's hectic schedule), it will be kept.

There was a protective necklace, a gift from Kanaan's mother, returned nine years after it helped a young Decatur girl survive a stroke.

There was the 2012 London Paralympics gold medal from racer-turned-cyclist Alex Zanardi, a good friend who gave it to Kanaan to rub on his car for good luck.

There was, in the end, a moment to celebrate and after one second and two thirds at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, after 225 laps led without a victory, three years after KV Racing Technology worked out a deal to give him a car after a lost sponsorship cost him his Andretti Motorsports ride, Kanaan finally had his celebration.

“This place is special to me. I didn't have to win to feel it. The fans spoiled me. A couple of years ago, when I finished 11th it was the same.

“So many wanted me to win. This win was more for them than for me.”

Kanaan passed Ryan Hunter-Reay on a restart with two laps to go, then coasted to the victory under a caution when defending champ Dario Franchitti hit the wall well behind the leaders.

Those last two laps behind the pace car, he said, seemed to take a lifetime. What, he briefly thought, would go wrong to mess it up this time?

“I started to check everything in car. Do we have enough fuel? Do we have four wheels?”

As it turned out, he did.

Rookie Carlos Munoz took second. Hunter-Reay was third. Marco Andretti, also shooting for his first Indy 500 victory that would have broken a 44-year family drought since grandfather Mario's victory, finished fourth.

It was a race for the record book, from the number of drivers to lead at least one lap (14) to the number of lead changes (68, shattering the record of 34 set last year) to the most consecutive green-flag laps (133) to the average speed (187.433 mph, well above the mark of 185.981 set in 1990).

“The stars lined up for us,” KV Racing Technology owner Jimmy Vasser said. “We didn't hit the race setup until about two hours before the race. Before that, Tony was saying it was the worst car he'd ever driven. He was ready to quit. Hang up his boots. In a matter of 45 minutes, we hit on something and it was the best car he'd ever had here.”

Nine years ago Kanaan visited Andrea Braun at an Indianapolis hospital. She was in a coma after a stroke from a brain aneurism and was set to undergo surgery. He gave her the necklace his mother had given him to protect him from auto racing's dangers.

Brown survived and, over the years, the two have remained in touch. Last week she showed up at the Speedway with the necklace.

“She said she had enough good luck in life,” Kanaan said. “She wanted to give it back to me.”

Kanaan had it with him as he drove to victory.

“I think I will retire it.”

Kanaan and Andretti set the early pace, swapping the lead throughout the first 29 laps. Pole winner Ed Carpenter hung just behind them.

Then pit stops by Kanaan and Andretti pushed Hunter-Reay into a one-lap lead and parity took over. By Lap 53, seven drivers had produced 17 lead changes. After 75 laps, there were 24 lead changes.

Those lead changes left it clear to everyone -- the last place you wanted to be was out in front.

“On the last restart, I didn't want to be in the lead because I knew I was going to be caught,” Kanaan said. “I was exactly where I wanted to be.”

For Kanaan, this was vindication after losing his Andretti Motorsports ride.

“If it wasn't for putting together this sponsorship, I wouldn't be here. We kept insisting we could do this. There are hard times for everybody.

“My career has been successful. I raced for a big team, prime time. I won a lot of races. I'm grateful for that.

“I never felt sorry for myself. Life has plenty of ups and downs. You've got to go for it. You take the opportunities. If you're fortunate enough, if you believe you're a good person, good things will come to you.”

On a cool, cloudy Sunday afternoon, they certainly did.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.