SPEEDWAY | Don’t let that yellow flag at the end of the 97th Indianapolis 500 fool you.
Sunday’s edition of racing’s crown jewel was the best, fastest, most enthralling and competitive 500 in history.
It may have been gifted with the most popular winner. Tony Kanaan, who has been so competitive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway only to come up short in his first 11 starts, won this time. He took the lead at the start of the 198th lap as he and Ryan Hunter-Reay dueled into Turn 1, and held it through Turn 2, by which time, 250 yards behind them, defending champion Dario Franchitti slid into the marbles and slapped the wall.
The fifth yellow flag of the day waved. There would be no restart.
Kanaan, on the 68th lead change of the day, finally was the 500-Mile Race’s 68th different champion.
“I got a little bit of luck today,” Kanaan said. “This is it! I made it! I finally get my face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.”
Carrying with him a good luck medal from a former stroke patient whom he had given it to a decade before, Kanaan broke through, then broke into tears.
He had company. The crowd of about 225,000 stood and applauded the entire field as the drivers returned to the pits, an uncommon occurrence, but saved their loudest roar for Kanaan. It exceeded the ovation he received before the race, when only pole sitter Ed Carpenter, the hometown favorite, was feted more loudly.
The 500 has had its share of popular winners in recent years, but Kanaan’s triumph might be as popular in the IndyCar paddock as Dale Earnhardt’s in the 1998 Daytona 500 was in the NASCAR garage. Kanaan is that well-liked.
“TK’s such a fan favorite, a great guy, a great teammate,” Hunter-Reay said. “That’s why this place is so special.”
“It’s well-deserved for him,” said Helio Castroneves, who became a close friend of Kanaan when they were buddies in karting in Brazil and finished sixth in a bid for a fourth 500 crown. “He did a great job.”
The race obliterated the record for lead-changes, with 14 drivers leading at least one lap. The old speed record average of 185.981 mph, set by Arie Luyendyk in 1990, was wiped out by Kanaan’s 187.433 mph average. Only 21 laps were run under yellow. A string of 133 green flag laps is a record for the 500. And 26 cars, 19 on the lead lap, were running at the finish, matching records set in the 1911 inaugural and in 2009.
The race finally narrowed to four – Hunter-Reay, Kanaan, rookie Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti – when the long green-flag run, which featured 48 of the 68 lead-changes, ended with Graham Rahal sliding into the inside wall coming out of Turn 2 with seven laps remaining. Hunter-Reay was leading at the time, but after three caution laps, lost the lead, and the race, to Kanaan when the field was let loose for the last time.
“We had no luck,” Hunter-Reay said. “We rode around. We would have been passing on the backstretch had we been green. You’re a sitting duck as a leader.”
Kanaan moved to the inside on the restart, buzzing by Hunter-Reay as Munoz did the same thing on the outside. Munoz slipped in behind Kanaan, with Hunter-Reay third and Andretti in hot pursuit of him, as they moved into the short chute. As they reached Turn 2, Franchitti slid high and brushed the wall in the chute. Like Rahal, he was uninjured.
Kanaan had led the 500 in eight other years. He knew he had to run down Hunter-Reay. He radioed his crew during the yellow, “Boys, I’m gonna go for it.”
“You can’t predict yellows, but when there’s any yellow with 15 laps to go, it gets crazy here,” Kanaan said later.
He led for about three seconds before Franchitti lost it, and with that, and no time for cleanup and another green flag, Kanaan had it.
He’d won the IndyCar season championship in 2004. Nobody remembers that. The prefix of Indianapolis 500 winner is linked to one’s name forever.
“We were known for not winning,” Kanaan said. “Now we’re known for winning."