By Lori Wood
Despite the fact that Tony Kanaan finished 11th Sunday in the Indianapolis 500, his was the story of the day.
After nearly missing the field for the 94th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Kanaan started 33rd, found himself second in the closing laps, but a splash of fuel decided his fate.
“I hope I made it exciting out there,” he said afterward. “I promised them a good start, and I think I did that.”
Kanaan’s saga began on qualifying weekend when he crashed two cars before making a late-day run to qualify 32nd. The Team 7-Eleven crew repaired his primary car, pushing him to the last spot.
Kanaan was confident, however, that his car was worthy. “I think we had a shot for a win,” he said. “This whole team, for the work they did today, deserved a top three finish.”
On the Thursday prior to the race he commented that just because his car was starting last, it was not the worst car in the field. He proved that without a doubt. Within the first lap, he went from 33rd to 25th. Within 20 laps, he had moved to 16th. At one point, he was turning laps of 226 mph.
Everything was working for him. Kanaan gained eight positions from his pit stop on lap 67, moving him into fourth behind Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. At the midway point, Kanaan fell into fifth place, but began to move again.
He started to set the stage for one of the biggest comebacks in race history. In 1932, Zeke Meyer improved 32 positions, from 38th to 6th. No car had ever won from farther back than 28th.
As Franchitti moved into the lead over Tomas Scheckter, Kanaan followed, taking second. From lap 114 to 160, he maintained his position.
During the last round of pit stops, Kanaan emerged in fifth, but the top three cars did not stop. As that group peeled off, he again found himself chasing Franchitti.
With six laps to go, the crowd cheered wildly every time Kanaan went by on the front straightaway. They were waiting on his storybook ending, but he wasn’t going to make it. He had to come in for a few seconds of fuel on lap 196. Not enough time remained for another climb to the top.
“We took a gamble. When it comes to a fuel-strategy race, I’m not a big fan of it. It could have gone the other way. We could have gotten the lead and won the race, and we could brag about it for the rest of my life,” he said afterward.
Kanaan has been one of the most beloved drivers in the series. He always found the time to talk to his fans, and they repaid him every day since his Bump Day drama with cheers. In an emotional interview that day, he said. “I never thought starting 32nd would feel better than the pole.”
During driver introductions before the race, Kanaan got the biggest response of all. Fans stood for the guy, who they believed could be the one who deserved it and could do something that had never been accomplished in the history of the Indianapolis 500.
His teammates at Andretti Autosport also found their day much improved from qualifying.
Marco Andretti also improved tremendously from his 16th starting slot. He battled for top spots in the final 50 laps before finishing third.
Andretti was initially credited with sixth, but was moved to third after a review showed that three cars passed him when the caution came out on the final lap. “I think every time I finish here, I've been on the podium. We had a third in ‘08, as well. We’ve run strong here,” he said. “As far as confidence, that means a lot to me because it shows that we can do it. It's just about getting everything right.”
Like Kanaan, he felt his car was good. “It took us a little longer to get to the front. But I think once we were in clean air, it was smooth sailing.”
Danica Patrick started 23rd. She slowly worked her way through the traffic, avoided trouble and finished sixth. “The pit stops were great. Between pit stops and strategy, it put us in fifth,” she said before the order was changed. “I focused on making sure I lifted and got a tow from other cars to save fuel as the laps were winding down.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay also ran in the top 10 in the closing laps until an incident with Mike Conway left him in 18th place.
Alex Lloyd turned in another darkhorse performance. His Dale Coyne Racing entry had come from 26th to finish fourth. “I knew I had a good car. We worked solidly all month on race setup. Today we were conservative with the downforce, and I knew I had to be patient,” he said.
Lloyd’s performance proved to himself and everyone that they can compete. “We’re a small team and we can still go out there and compete with the big guns. We knew it was possible, but this is maybe even better than we could have dreamed of.”
Panther Racing’s Dan Wheldon made the last attempt at Franchitti. His second-place run was two in a row at Indy. Wheldon came from 18th. “We came up a little short, but still a fantastic finish. This event has always been the greatest in the world,” he concluded.
Wheldon partly blamed himself for not taking the win. “I’m getting older and a little more conservative. I should not have been so disciplined.
“Back in the day, I probably would have ignored some of the instructions I got on those last five laps. As I’ve got older, I think I’m a bit better behaved. I took it upon myself to save fuel early on in that stint. I was lifting through the middle of every corner at one point just to kind of set myself up for the end. I was still able to run a relatively good pace doing that.”
Wheldon was, however, out of the Overtake Assists which complicated his run.
Kanaan, Lloyd, Wheldon, Patrick and Andretti all began the race out of the top 15. They all ran in the top five during at least one point in the race. Lloyd and Kanaan each advanced 22 positions, the most of any finisher.