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Kanaan Wins Fans' Hearts With Streak Of Strong Indy Finishes

There have been plenty of fan favorites that have thrilled the huge throng that gathers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every year for the Indianapolis 500. From Bill Vukovich to A.J. Foyt to Mario Andretti, the Unsers, Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves, there are drivers who are favorites because of their ability to win the biggest race in the world.

Then there are others who are equally popular that never won the race.

While the winner of the Indianapolis 500 achieves fame and glory that lasts for history, those who have come close but never won endure an equal amount of recognition that can’t be shaken for the rest of their life.

Ted Horn was one of the all-time great drivers in the history of the Indianapolis 500 from 1935-48. In his rookie season, he finished 16th – the only time he would finish lower than fourth. Beginning in 1936, he finished second, was third in 1937, fourth in 1938, ’39 and ’40 and third in 1941. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was shut down from 1942-45 because of World War II, but Horn continued his remarkable streak by finishing third in 1946 and ’47 and fourth in 1948. But less than six months after the 1948 Indianapolis 500, Horn was killed in a racing crash Oct. 10, 1948 at DuQuoin, Ill.

Lloyd Ruby competed in the Indianapolis 500 from 1960-77. Unlike Horn, who was able to score some impressive finishes, Ruby was known for his hard luck that would take him out of the race while he was a leading contender. In 1965, it was a blown engine with 16 laps to go. In 1966, he looked like he would cruise to victory, leading 68 laps, before a broken cam knocked him out after 166 of 200 laps. He led 42 laps in 1968 but finished fifth. In 1969, he was the leader when he pitted for fuel on Lap 105 but left the pits with the fuel hose still attached and it ruptured the fuel tank. In 1970, a drive gear failed, and he had a gear issue after leading the race in 1971 that put him out 26 laps from the finish.

Michael Andretti holds the record for most laps led by a non-winning driver in the Indianapolis 500 with 431 in a career that began in 1984 and ended with his last Indy 500 in 2007. He had five top-five, nine top-10 finishes in 16 starts with no victories. He led 160 laps in the 1992 race before his Ford-Cosworth engine broke a belt just 11 laps from the finish. One year earlier, Andretti had scored the highest finish of his Indy 500 career when he lost to Rick Mears in one of the best two-car duels in history during the closing laps of the race. On a restart, Andretti passed Mears on the outside heading into the Turn 1 in a move that few had ever seen. But one lap later, Mears pulled the same move by passing Andretti on the outside in Turn 1 and went on to become just the third four-time winner of the Indy 500.

Scott Goodyear lost the 1992 Indianapolis 500 to Al Unser Jr. by just .043 of a second – the closest margin of victory in the 101-year history of this speed contest. He was the leader on the final restart of the 1995 race but passed the Pace Car and was black-flagged for that violation. Goodyear contended the Pace Car had not been up to proper speed and continued on the race course without coming into pit lane to serve his penalty. Race officials stopped scoring Goodyear after the 195th lap. Although he finished first across the finish line, it was fellow Canadian Jacques Villeneuve who won the race. Goodyear was officially credited with 14th place.

Two years later, Goodyear was involved in another controversy. He was running second behind teammate Arie Luyendyk when the race was restarted with one lap remaining. At that time, the race was sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC) and the green and white flags waved at the flag stand, but the yellow lights remained on the race course through Turns 2. Luyendyk won the race, but the confusion cost Goodyear a fair shot at a proper restart. He finished second for the second time in his career.

And then there is Tony Kanaan, who has competed in 11 Indy 500s and is considered the best current driver who has never won the race. He was third in 2003, second in 2004 and won the pole in 2005 but finished eighth. He also finished fifth in 2006 and fourth in 2011.

It will be his daring drive in this year’s Indy 500 that may be remembered the most.

Kanaan’s favorite animal is a gorilla, and he pulled off a restart of King Kong proportions when he drove from seventh to first on Lap 185. The move was so spectacular it brought many of the fans in the grandstands to their feet.

Kanaan would go on to finish third in the thrilling race May 27. But after the race, the fans gave him as big an ovation as they gave three-time race winner Dario Franchitti. In fact, Kanaan drew the biggest cheers of any driver in pre-race introductions as a testament to the Brazilian’s popularity at the Indy 500.

It’s been nearly one month since the most competitive Indianapolis 500 in history, and Kanaan was able to reflect on his daring drive in his motorhome last weekend at the Milwaukee Mile.

“I shouldn’t say I’m surprised, but I’m really flattered I have the support that I have,” Kanaan said. “Although I haven’t won that race yet and God knows if I ever will, they make me feel like a winner there. I’m not trying to talk like a loser because I consider myself a winner, but to me they make me feel like one.

“It is humbling. Talking to (fiancée) Lauren, I don’t hear half of it sometimes, but when I made the pass, I could watch on TV how wild that place went. If I never win this thing, I feel like a winner there because of the way the fans treat me, and I love coming back because of that.

“Maybe my face will never go on that trophy and maybe my name won’t go to the Museum, but I feel like one, for sure.”

For now, Kanaan is in the company of some big-name drivers who never won at Indy. But he is at peace with the fact that if he doesn’t have his face etched on the Borg-Warner Trophy, he will still be remembered as an integral part of the race’s glorious history.

“I have already made history there without winning,” Kanaan said. “There are always a group of people who make history in other ways by winning the Indy 500 in the last corner or crash in the last corner. If I retire without winning, I will be the guy who led eight races in a row there, led more than 200 laps and was a fan favorite. To me, it’s flattering. It’s definitely something I didn’t expect.”

Kanaan also experienced a huge ovation after he finished 11th in 2010. That year he started last in the 33-car field but passed eight cars in the first two turns of the first lap. He made it all the way up to second place before he had to pit for fuel with less than 10 laps left and finished 11th.

“I had such a terrible month that year and then had such a good race,” Kanaan said. “I was in a much better position this year. If you are asking me what is different, that is what it was. In 2010, I had a great race but got caught in strategy. As much as I would take a win from strategy, I hate that because that is not the way Indy should be. This year I raced it until the last lap, and I had a chance to win. It was exactly the same when I finished second and the same when I felt third. I felt better because I knew I was in contention. It wasn’t any outside circumstances that made me lose that race a few times.

“The fan base has grown since then, so the cheers just got bigger and bigger as the last two years went by. I’ve had a lot more people cheering for me. Indy right now, not just for the place or the track or the fan base, but even in Indianapolis I’m as famous as I am at home. Anywhere I go there, people know me and call me by my name. It’s like when Peyton Manning played for the Colts – I’m not that big – but wherever I go, people know who I am.”

While his zig-zag move down the frontstretch on the Lap 185 restart will forever be remembered as one of the most thrilling in Indy 500 history, Kanaan believes his start of the 2010 race was more impressive.

“It was a good one, but I would put my start in 2010 better than that,” Kanaan said. “There were two corners, I was dead last. I had more fun on that one. Yeah, it was a good one (2012 restart). I hope the crowd liked it, but I'll still vote for my 2010.”

Beginning the final lap of this year’s race, Kanaan was running fourth with Scott Dixon third. Just ahead were race leader Franchitti and second-place driver Takuma Sato. As the front two cars approached Turn 1, Sato made a bold move by diving under Franchitti. When Dixon saw that, he thought he would win the race because he expected Sato and Franchitti to crash.

Sato did; Franchitti didn’t as the yellow flag came out on the final lap.

“I was setting him up for a pass,” Kanaan said of Dixon in what could have been the race-winning move. “I thought the same thing – there was still one lap to go. We were running so close; the difference between me and Dixon to Sato is we knew what we had to do because of experience. Sato went by instinct, and you saw what happened.”

Instead, Kanaan finished third and had another near miss at Indianapolis 500 glory.

“If you think about it, other races I was there in 2004 and 2007, I was dominant, too, when I started on the pole,” he said. “I led most of the laps there in 2007 when it rained and the race was stopped at 113 laps (the race would restart hours later and Franchitti would go on to victory). It was one of the good chances, but it wasn’t my best chance. This year my month went pretty smooth. I had great qualifying and had a great car. It was a normal month. I’ve had some odd months the past few years. This one went normal for me. It went pretty smooth. I qualified pretty well. I had to qualify twice, which was the only drama that I had all month long.

“I think if you look at my results, definitely the track suits my racing style. I’ve never been to that track where I wasn’t in contention to win the race. It’s a four-turn road course, and that is one reason I do so well. It’s not an oval, and there are four different corners there. If you are a good oval driver, it doesn’t matter there. The season starts and you think about a championship, but in the month of May you only think of the Indianapolis 500. If you don’t win it on Monday, you think 364 more days to go until I get to race here again. One day, I would like to come back to defend my title.”

Kanaan said he will return to the Indianapolis 500 “as long as they want me” and expects to drive for at least another five years. Maybe sometime over that stretch, he will finally break into the winner’s circle.

But in the eyes of many fans, Kanaan is already a champion by his heroic and fearless racing style.

“I was definitely satisfied with the effort, but I was more thrilled with the way the fans treated me after the race,” Kanaan said. “What are missing from the guy that won are the victory laps, the celebration, the Pace Car, the ring and the check. Everything else, I’ve got it.”

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