Kanaan already a popular 500 winner

INDIANAPOLIS -- Prior to the 198th lap of the 2013 Indianapolis 500, Dario Franchitti had never crashed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"A big old hit," he called the impact with the Turn 1 wall.

"But when I saw who was leading, it cheered me up a little bit," Franchitti added. "It's great, just phenomenal that Tony [Kanaan] won. He's a very, very deserving winner."

Franchitti summed up what all of Kanaan's colleagues and some 200,000 fans at the Speedway were thinking.

Tony Kanaan is finally an Indianapolis 500 winner. It's about time.

Lord knows he had tried. Kanaan took to Indianapolis like a duck to water when he arrived in 2002. He was miles in the lead when a lapped car blew its engine, oiled down the track in front of him before officials could call for a caution, and put him in the wall.

Year after year, Indianapolis seemed so easy. He never qualified lower than sixth. He led laps every year, finished second, third, fifth. He won an IndyCar Series championship in dominant fashion in 2004, but the cards never fell his way at Indy.

It looked like the win was there for the taking in 2007. TK led 83 laps and was comfortably pacing the pack. But rain ended the race after 166 laps, during a bad time in the pit-stop cycle for Kanaan. He wound up a disconsolate 12th while his pal Franchitti drank the winner's milk.

Then came the hard times. Kanaan didn't finish in 2008 and '09, and he barely qualified in 2010, scraping onto the grid in 33rd place.

A change of teams to KV Racing Technology brought better fortune -- at Indianapolis at least, with top-four finishes the last two years. Still, Kanaan was rarely mentioned as a favorite at Indy this year.

He was aggressive from the start, gaining five places on the first lap from his 12th-place starting position. And 13 laps in, Kanaan moved into the lead, and he was at the front for the rest of the record-setting afternoon.

Prior to Sunday, Kanaan had led 221 laps at Indianapolis, third all-time among drivers who had never won there. Still in the prime of his career, he was already considered one of Indianapolis' famous hard-luck stories.

"For awhile there I was afraid Tony was going to the be the next Lloyd Ruby and never make it to Victory Lane at Indy," said Parnelli Jones, on hand at the Speedway on the 50th anniversary of his win in the 1963 500. "After 11 tries at Indy ending in bad luck and frustration, I was happy to see him drinking milk and getting his photo with the Borg-Warner Trophy -- he sure earned it.

"I'll tell you one thing, I was watching the race from the Pagoda and the fans were sure happy to see Tony win," he added. "It seemed like they were behind him all afternoon -- they cheered like hell and you could really hear them above the sounds of the engines when he was leading."

Indeed, Kanaan got the biggest cheers when the drivers were introduced before the race and the storyline of his adversity-filled youth and bad luck at the Brickyard has made him an Indianapolis fan favorite.

The crowd roared its approval as Kanaan crossed the start-finish line the final two times at reduced speed behind the Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car.

Although he is already one of the IZOD IndyCar Series' most recognizable stars, the Indianapolis victory should boost Kanaan's public profile even more.

"It's hard for me to talk about myself, but I think you heard the crowd," Kanaan said Monday morning. "They've been wanting me to win for so long. I heard yesterday, 'The right person finally won.'

"If it helps the series, that's awesome," he added. "I've been extremely popular here for so many years. And it was a great race. Now we just need to keep it steady."

Kanaan earned $2,353,355 for the victory, which will provide a needed short-term financial boost to the KVRT team.

KVRT landed a partial season sponsorship from Hydroxycut shortly before the 2013 campaign started, but team co-owner Jimmy Vasser confirmed that there is no sponsorship in place for four upcoming IndyCar races -- including the series' return to Pocono, Pa., where Kanaan will be the only driver in the running for a $1 million bonus offered by Fuzzy's Vodka if he can sweep a "Triple Crown" of superspeedway races at Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana, Calif.

There's no question KVRT and Kanaan will contest those events, but it would be ideal to have a more solid budget in place.

For now, Kanaan is just happy that he no longer carries the pressure of being the best driver in his generation who hasn't won Indy.

"I wouldn't call it pressure," he said. "It's so hard to win a race. It's even harder to pick a race to win. But I'm glad I put myself out of that group and put myself in the other group.

"I've always admired the legends of this place -- Rick Mears, A.J. [Foyt], Mario [Andretti], Parnelli. It starts to get into you. Then to have these people telling you they want you to win, it's awesome. Parnelli came to me and said, 'I want you to win.' I'm like, 'Whoa, all right!'

"I'm glad I'm on the other side and I can put my big nose on that trophy."