SPEEDWAY, Ind. – In terms of competition, this was an Indianapolis 500 for the ages – smashing the record for most lead changes by 34 and for the fastest Indy 500 of all-time with an average speed of 187.433 miles per hour.
In terms of storylines, however, it was an Indianapolis 500 for immortality, as popular, hard-luck driver Tony Kanaan finally shed his image as “Best driver to never win an Indy 500.”
Kanaan’s victory in Sunday’s 97th Indianapolis 500 was popular from beginning to start as he drew the loudest ovation from the crowd of over a quarter-million spectators in driver introductions to the final decisive moment when it was clear that Kanaan had finally won the Indy 500 for the first time in his career. The roar from the fans that watched this most unique and unusual race loudly cheered the popular Brazilian driver who became the 100th face that will be etched onto the BorgWarner Trophy.
“It was just a good day,” Kanaan said. “I was extremely confident. But I think with the past 11 years, I’ve been through everything here, I had no expectations. I said, you know what, we do what we can, put ourselves in a good position.”
He did that on Sunday in an incredible Indianapolis 500.
It was spectacular, it was sensational, it was stupendous it was unprecedented – that is what makes the Indianapolis 500 the greatest race in the world because of the unexpected. Nobody had any idea who would win Sunday’s race and that was obvious when Graham Rahal brought out the yellow flag after he did a full spin exiting the second turn, slid across the track and hit the inside wall.
Kanaan was one of 19 drivers on the lead lap and running behind leader Ryan Hunter-Reay but in front of rookie Carlos Munoz, Marco Andretti and Justin Wilson. When the green flag flew on Lap 198 there were three laps left to settle the Indianapolis 500 but in a race that featured so much passing, few expected it would go green all the way to the checkered flag.
Kanaan, Hunter-Reay and Munoz went three-wide for the lead and it was Kanaan that muscled his way to the front in turn one. But when three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti went high in the first turn he crashed in the short chute and the yellow light came on for good. Kanaan could follow the pace car for the final laps and take the checkered flag just behind three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who was driving the Pace Car.
Kanaan drove to victory in his 12th Indy 500 start and didn’t let torn ligaments in his right thumb keep him from his drive to victory.
“When it was six laps to go, went yellow, I wasn’t in the lead, I said, ‘This might be the day, today might be the day, because I was in Ryan’s position plenty of times,” Kanaan recalled. “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.
“How life is funny. The yellow was my best friend.”
“I never had a doubt I could win this thing. I talked about it many times that I could do it or not, but this place is still going to be special. Today it worked.”
Last year’s 34 lead changes established a race record but that was doubled this year with 68. Green flag racing last an astounding 133 straight laps from Lap 61 to 193 – the longest green-flag period in Indianapolis 500 history since caution flag laps were recorded beginning in 1976. There were only five cautions for 21 laps in the 200-lap contest. After Team Penske rookie driver A.J. Allmendinger led laps 98-111 Hunter-Reay was the only other driver from that point on that led more than five laps when he was in front for six.
“It was a chess game,” Kanaan said. “It’s funny enough because I don’t know how to play chess.”